I’m betting that you need a break from curve flattening, and disinfectants, and Twitter, and Slack, and Zoom, and asking if people can see your screen, so let me tell you what I’ve been reading recently.
I’ve been reading a whole lot about tomatoes, particularly how they are transported from the North to the South of Nigeria. You see, tomatoes are quite subject to decay, only staying good for a couple of days outside of cold chain storage. As many transporters can not afford that they take a huge loss from the amount that is loaded unto the trailers to the amount that gets delivered to markets in the South.
If you’re unfamiliar with the geography, the Northern parts of Nigeria tend to grow crops like tomatoes in huge quantities and ship them to markets in the South - using routes quite like that in the figure below.
Route from Kano to Lagos; Source: USAID, culled from Babarinsa et al, 2018
The literature is quite solid on the losses obtained by these transporters, not just by the losses due to temperature but also by the losses due to compression. Farmers tend to package tomatoes for shipping in raffia baskets that do not withstand the forces in transit well enough. Extensive studies have been done, particularly in the University of Ibadan (my alma mater, so shameless plug), to characterize what these forces are and how these raffia baskets can be reinforced to reduce the tomato losses. Other researchers, in institutes such as the Nigerian Stored Products Research Institute, have tested plastic crates as a replacement for these raffia baskets.
Tomato stored in raffia baskets; Source: Raji & Oriola 2007
Comparison of damages (in %) when shipped in raffia baskets vs plastic crates, accounting for stacking layers; Source: Babarinsa et al 2018
In fact, the DFID has sponsored adoption of these crates at large markets like Lagos’ Mile 12 Market. The big issue, as always, is cost as well as how well these crates can be reused. A raffia basket costs only ₦400 (about US$1) and can hold about 55-80kg of tomatoes, while a plastic crate that can hold 25-30kg sells for ₦1800.
Notice that the range of the baskets is quite huge because they can be made (and extended) locally fairly easily.
A conspicuous issue missing from literature is that a good number of the transporters only move tomatoes as an add-on.
One of my former classmates in undergrad is a Visiting Researcher at Purdue in the Agricultural Engineering department; he tells me that many tomato transporters actually own or rent fuel tankers that they fill in the South to sell at a markup in the North. In order to make some extra cash on the trip South with the empty tanker, they carry tomatoes.
Tomatoes loaded in raffia basket mounted on a petrol tank and covered with brown paper; Source: Akhere Olenloa
I know what you might be thinking: is it even sanitary to transport tomatoes that close to gasoline? But that is the least of the issues plaguing these transporters, the biggest one is that they lose about 12% of the tomatoes in a two-day trip.
Yet again, there are other transporters who are much better at cleanliness. These are mostly ‘off-takers’, they take freshly harvested tomatoes off the hands of farmers and deliver them to their customers - which usually include hotels, restaurants and supermarkets.
Off-takers usually have some form of a cold chain, ranging from repurposed reefers running some sort of Coolbot to cooling vans that develop mechanical faults quite often. The question that I’ve still not answered for myself: when I eat a tomato in my parents’ house in Ibadan, how do I know which route it took to get there?
If you’ve been thinking, reading or dreaming about tomatoes too, shoot me an email - let’s be insomniacs together!
One more thing.
I’ve been reading The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and The Self, a classic text by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton. Two psychology professors who go into people’s homes to study their relationship with artifacts they own in the 1970s, it’s a beautiful book that I will recommend to anyone building physical products for people. But there’s a caveat: it’s realllllllllly academic (tables, charts etc.).
For lighter reads on the same (more like, related) subject matter, I’ll recommend Don Norman’s Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things or Deyan Sudjic’s The Language of Things. The former takes a psychological approach, the latter a more aesthetic one.
Big thanks to all those who sent me emails during my break. I’m not back yet but I think a surprise every now and then about the stuff that I’m reading might be a good way to get back into the groove.
Hope you have a good week!