Home start-up Meet Agri-tech company iChigo, Winner of 1st Agri Science Grand Prix

Meet Agri-tech company iChigo, Winner of 1st Agri Science Grand Prix

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Ichigo is Japanese word for Strawberries

Winner of 1st Agripreneur Grand Prix (Predecessor of Agri Science Grand Prix)

Japan is aiming to boost exports of farming, marine food and food products to one trillion Japanese Yen (JPY) by the year 2020. This includes 25 billion yen in fresh fruits and vegetables such as apples, citrus fruits, peaches and pears in the target markets of Southeast Asia, the EU and the Middle East. The Institute of Engineering Agriculture Technology (iEAT), a technology- based startup of Utsunomiya University, has developed a system for exporting ripe mega strawberries to the world.

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Big, ripe and very sweet: Japanese Ichigo is in high demand around the world

Strawberries from Japan are now an established brand in Hong Kong, where prices can reach 1,000 JPY or more per pack. Large strawberries (six to eight pieces per pack) are proving more popular than the standard size (9 to 15 per pack). Mega strawberries weighing 40 grams or more each are appealing, and fully ripened with sweet flavor and minimal acidity—what Japanese strawberries are meant to look and taste. Japan is the only country in the world producing premium Ichigo like this, and there is considerable potential for developing new markets overseas. Availability of such Ichigo to date has been limited, however, primarily because strawberries cannot be force-ripened, and must be picked at close to full maturity, when the sugar content is high and the skin is soft. This means that the slightest bruising or impact during picking or packing can damage the fruit. Fresh-picked strawberries have a short life span; large strawberries are particularly vulnerable, and can even become damaged by their own weight in conventional flat packaging.

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Ichigo remain touch-free until they reach the table

The iEAT has developed a strawberry picking robot that operates in conjunction with a strawberry damage detector to ensure that only large, ripe Ichigo in peak condition are selected for harvest. The iEAT has also created a revolutionary new container called Freshell that provides greater protection during transportation compared to existing packaging. Each individual Ichigo is held securely by the harder base and carpophore, and there are no surfaces of the container in contact with the flesh of the fruit. Export trials by air and sea to Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore and France demonstrated that the Freshell-ed strawberries remained in peak condition for up to 14 days, no bruising and no loss of sweetness associated with conventional flat packs. In January 2015, a shipment of 60 g packs of Skyberry brand Ichigo in Freshell packs was offered at 1,600 JPY each in supermarket for high end consumer in Malaysia. The entire shipment sold out immediately.

Encouraging primary producers to get on board

The strawberry picking robot and Freshell container represent a successful combination of engineering and agriculture. They were developed by two professors. The one is Associate Professor Masaru Kashiwazaki, whose specialization is in contactless strawberry packaging and quality evaluation, and another is Professor Koichi Ozaki, a researcher in agricultural robotics. To create large, fully ripened Ichigo, highly sophisticated production knowledge and experiences of Japanese farmers are also indispensable. Mr. Kashiwazaki hopes that passing down scientific knowledge on fruits at institutes will encourage farmers to be more creative in their endeavors. It will not be long before plump, ripe Ichigo is an integral part of the Japan brand around the world along with new term for ripen strawberries, ICHIGO.

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