At one in the morning, several hours before fishing boats launch, François Habiyambere, a wholesale fish dealer in Rubavu, in northwest Rwanda, sets out to harvest ice. In the whole country, there is just one machine that makes the kind of light, snowy flakes of ice needed to cool the tilapia that, at this hour, are still swimming through the dreams of the fish farmers who supply Habiyambere’s business. Flake ice, with its soft edges and fluffy texture, swaddles seafood like a blanket, hugging, without crushing, its delicate flesh. The flake-ice machine was bought secondhand a few years ago from a Nile-perch processing plant in Uganda. A towering, rusted contraption, it sits behind a gas station on the main road into the southeastern market town of Rusizi, on the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Its daily output would almost fill a typical restaurant dumpster, which is considerably less than the amount required by the five fishmongers who use it.
“The first one who comes gets enough,” Habiyambere told me when I accompanied him one day in May. “The rest do not.” He said this in a tone of quiet resignation. The machine is five and a half hours’ drive south of where he lives, which is why his workday begins in the middle of the night. Her rides in one of the country’s few refrigerated trucks, driven by a solid, handsome twenty-eight-year-old named Jean de Dieu Umugenga, and laden with spring onions and carrots bound for market. The route is twisty and Umugenga swings around the hairpin bends with panache, shifting in his seat with each gear change, while twangy anga music plays on the radio.
Sometime after 3 am, cyclists start to appear. All over rural Rwanda, sinewy young men set out from their homes on heavy steel single-speed bikes that are almost invisible beneath comically oversized loads: bunches of green bananas strapped together onto cargo racks; sacks of tomatoes piled two or three high; dozens of live chickens stacked in pyramids of beaks and feathers; bundles of cassava leaves so massive that, in the predawn light, it looks as though shrubbery is rolling along the side of the road. Over the next four or five hours, as the heat of the day sets in, gradually wilting the cassava leaves and softening the tomatoes, these men will cover hundreds of miles, carrying food from the countryside to sell in markets in the capital, Kigali.
Rwanda is known as Le Pays des Mille Collines, “land of a thousand hills,” but there must be at least ten thousand, their lush, green terraced slopes rising steeply out of a sea of early-morning mist that fills the valleys below. The cyclists coast down each hill and then dismount to push their bikes up the next. When they reach a paved road, some of them may manage to catch a ride hanging on to the back of Umugenga’s truck.
Around half past five, as the first flush of dawn appears, members of the Rulindo vegetable coöperative, a few hours northwest of Kigali, head into the fields. Rwandans are notoriously neat, I am told, and the countryside is packed with postage-stamp-size plots, like hobbit gardens, hugging the hillside contours in orderly terraces. Chili-pepper bushes and green-bean vines grow in uniform rows; the fertile red soil of the valley floor is pristine and weed-free; every square inch is meticulously cultivated.
By this time, Habiyambere and Umugenga have driven a hundred and forty miles down the entire eastern shoreline of Lake Kivu, where the fishing industry of this landlocked country is based. Its waters are dotted with rocky islands and traditional wooden canoes fishing for sambaza, a silvery, sardine-like fish usually eaten deep-fried, with a beer. The canoes travel lashed together in groups of three, their nets attached to long eucalyptus poles that project from the prows and the sterns like insect antennae. On arrival in Rusizi, Habiyambere and Umugenga stop first at the market to unload the vegetables, which will be sold to Congolese traders. Then they head to the ice machine, where, after painstakingly cleaning the truck’s interior, they score a small mound of precious flake ice. By 6:45 amthey are parked in the shade down at the dock, dozing as they wait for the fishermen to land.
Farther north, closer to the Ugandan border, Charlotte Mukandamage is wiping down the udder of a heifer that she keeps in a wooden stall behind her mud-brick home. Squatting on a plastic jerrican, Mukandamage coaxes a gallon and a half of warm, frothy milk out of the cow and into a small metal pail. Then she carefully picks her way down a steep and slippery mud path carved into the hillside, heading for a concrete marker with a picture of a cow painted on it, where a small crowd has assembled to await the milk collector.
When I tagged along with Mukandamage one morning, we were joined by a half-dozen others, including an elderly man in a fedora toting a large pink plastic bucket, and a skinny seven-year-old hauling a yellow tin pail nearly half her size . The morning sun was glittering on the tin roofs of nearby homes, and wisps of smoke from woodstoves mingled with mist rising off the hills. Soon, a balding man wearing black gum boots came into view: Pierre Bizimana, a farmer and a part-time milk collector. He pushed a bike, over which were slung two battered steel cans, each capable of carrying a little more than thirteen gallons of milk. For the next two hours, in the gathering humidity, Bizimana, his assistant, and I trudged uphill from one station to another, picking up a gallon here and a half gallon there from a few dozen farmers. Then we headed to the nearby town of Gicumbi, where there is a milk-collection center with an industrial chiller.
By 9:30 am, Our main is heading home, to tend to his own cow and a small plot on which he grows sorghum, corn, and beans. Hundreds of miles away, François Habiyambere and Jean de Dieu Umugenga have embarked on the drive back north with a truck full of fresh fish for the Rubavu market. Some of the sweaty cyclists are already making their return journeys, too, often with a passenger perched on the cargo rack where the cassava or the chickens had been. And the Rulindo farmers are back from their fields bearing crates of freshly picked peppers and beans. The next morning, the harvest will be loaded onto a RwandAir flight bound for the United Kingdom, where it will be sold in supermarkets. In the meantime, the crates are stacked in a solar-powered cold-storage room, which, at sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit, is about twenty degrees warmer than it should be.
The International Institute of Refrigeration estimates that, globally, 1.6 billion tons of food are wasted every year, and that thirty per cent of this could be saved by refrigeration—a lost harvest of sufficient abundance to feed nine hundred and fifty million people annually. In a country like Rwanda, where fewer than one in five infants and toddlers eat what the World Health Organization classifies as the minimum acceptable diet, such wasteage is a matter of life and death. Rwanda is one of the poorest countries in the world: the gross per-capita income is currently $2.28 a day, and more than a third of children under five are stunted from malnutrition. Although it is difficult to calculate the precise contribution of unrefrigerated bacterial reproduction to rates of food-borne illness, according to the most recent data diarrhea alone is estimated to have reduced Rwanda’s GDP by between two and a half and five per cent. Nevertheless, President Paul Kagame’s government has pledged to transform Rwanda into a high-income country by 2050; Recently, it has come to realize that this goal cannot be achieved without refrigeration.
In 2018, Rwanda announced a National Cooling Strategy, the first in sub-Saharan Africa, and, in 2020, it launched a program known as the Africa Center of Excellence for Sustainable Cooling and Cold Chain, or ACES. A collaboration between the Rwandan and UK co-workers and the UN Environment Program ACES is designed to harness expertise from within Africa and beyond it. Several British universities are involved, as is the University of Rwanda, in Kigali, where the new institution has its campus. ACES‘ mission is wide-ranging and encompasses research, training, and business incubation, and also the design and certification of cooling systems; once construction is complete, early next year, its campus will have the country’s first advanced laboratory for studying food preservation and a hall to demonstrate the latest refrigeration technology.
Among people involved in international development, Rwanda is considered a good place to do business. There is little corruption; Kagame, though an autocrat, is credited with enforcing discipline in the public sector and promoting governmental accountability and transparency. And the country’s small size—it is not much larger than Vermont—makes it an ideal testing ground for initiatives that, if successful, can then be deployed across sub-Saharan Africa. ACES has plans to expand from its Kigali hub with spokes across the continent, and the team is also working with the southern Indian state of Telangana to build a similar center there.
In Kigali, I met the world’s first professor of cold economy, Toby Peters, from the University of Birmingham, who has spent much of the past three years working to launch ACES. When I told him about my journeys alongside Rwanda’s slowly broiling milk, fish, meat, and vegetables, he defined the problem in systemic terms. “There is no cold chain in Rwanda,” he said. “It just doesn’t exist.”
In the developed world, the domestic refrigerator is only the final link in the “cold chain”—a series of thermally controlled spaces through which your food moves from farm to table. The cold chain is the invisible backbone of our food system, a perpetual mechanical winter that we have built for our food to live in. Artificial refrigeration was introduced in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, but the term “cold chain” gained currency only in the late nineteen-forties, when European bureaucrats rebuilding a continent shattered by war studied and copied American methods.
Today, in the United States, a green bean grown in, say, Wisconsin will likely have spent no more than two hours, and often much less, at temperatures above forty-five degrees on its way to your fork. As soon as it is harvested, it is rushed to a packhouse to have its “field heat” removed: it is either run through a flume of cold water, known as a hydrocooler, or put in a forced-air chiller, where a gigantic fan pushes refrigerated air through stacked pallets of beans. These processes “pre-cool” the bean, lowering its internal temperature from more than eighty degrees down to the low forties in just a couple of hours. After that, a bean can happily hang out in cold-storage facilities, travel in refrigerated trucks, and sit on chilled supermarket shelves for up to four weeks without losing its snap.
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