Cold Storage – A Critical Link in the Potato Value Chain

In Europe and North America, potatoes are available all year round. There is always a potato harvest going on somewhere and distribution of potatoes year-round can be moderated due to the potato’s storability. Even more, a potato can travel great distances to market and arrive in good condition. However, in parts of the world like Africa and Asia, being able to store a potato allows fortunate farmers to hold onto their harvest until the price is right, or helps to safely preserve their seed from season to season.

In general it takes about 120 days from planting for a potato to be harvested. That gives farmers in Sub Saharan Africa and parts of Asia two potato harvests per year. When potatoes are harvested their supply is generally high which makes the price low. If farmers can hold on to their crops long enough to wait until the supply of potatoes decreases, they are able to sell their potatoes for higher prices and increase profits. Furthermore, by spreading out distribution to the market, farmers helps moderate the supply of potato and may even moderate prices, which allows for greater pricing certainty and creates fewer price spikes.

This sounds logical but it is not necessarily easy. Storing potatoes is complicated and requires space and a certain know-how that not all farmers have. Cold storage technology varies in practice but consists of the same basic fundamentals which include a cold environment achieved through either mechanical refrigeration that can store potatoes around 4°C for up to eight months, or via ambient cooling using somewhat less efficient straw bales for insulation. Ambient cooling is more affordable and can keep potatoes fresh for one to three months following harvest. These cold environments harden the skin and delay deterioration. On a smaller scale, this can help farmers time the market or save their seed from season to season. On a larger scale this enables communities of smallholder farmers to pool their harvests to time the market or sell to processors.

Cold storage has its drawbacks. For instance, one rotten potato can spread rot to the whole lot. As a result, cold storage requires a meticulous grading system that eliminates rotting potatoes as well as scratched ones. Cold storage facilities can be expensive to build and maintain. Large facilities that pool harvests often charge a risk premium to ensure against massive loss. These charges are passed on to the smallholder who receives a reduced dividend post sale. However, if built well and properly maintained, cold storage units that accept the right potatoes are profitable enterprises that help ensure food security for the communities that use them.