A decadent chain of food loss in the hunger capital
Posted Tuesday, March 5 2013 at 02:00
- Thousands of smallholder farmers with farms under 10 acres supply over 70 per cent of the nearly 250,000 metric tonnes of fruits and vegetables exported from Kenya every year, but more than 50 per cent of their produce often never reaches where it was intended in the first place; the dining table
Food waste may seem like the decadent bad habit of the developed world, but even in Kenya, where millions of people go hungry every day, more food gets produced than is consumed. Developing countries share responsibility with developed nations in wasting 50 per cent of all food that is produced, according to a report recently published by the British Institution of Mechanial Engineers (IMechE).
In developed countries, supermarkets reject quality fruit and vegetables for aesthetic reasons, while salesmen encourage customers to buy too much, only to throw out the excess, from 30 to 50 per cent, according to the report.
In developing countries, inefficient harvesting, inadequate local transportation and poor infrastructure cause food to be damaged or spoiled before it even reaches consumers, highlights IMechE.
Dr Stephen Mbithi, CEO of the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya, distinguishes the two problems as food waste, which is deliberate, versus food loss, which is not deliberate.
“But the bottom line is that whether food is lost or wasted, it is not consumed, and that reduces the overall available supplies, hence increasing pressure on production” Dr Mbithi underlines. There are no official numbers on food waste in Kenya, but since the country exports fruits and vegetables to developed countries, both waste and loss occur here, making it a pressing issue that needs as many solutions as there are causes.
Waste on the Export Market
Thousands of smallholder farmers with farms under 10 acres supply over 70 per cent of the nearly 25,0000 metric tonnes of fruits and vegetables exported from Kenya every year. The difficulty in getting that produce to market often starts at the farm gate.
“The road infrastructure is a challenge because some of the trucks can’t get to where the farmer is,” explains Peter Mwangi Ngumo, a small farmer in Kirinyaga County who grows beans for export.
Farmers producing for foreign markets are located no more than a three-hour drive from Nairobi, but the rains can make even short journeys completely impossible.
And that is when trucks are available in the first place.
From the farms, produce is brought to a local grading centre. There, peas, beans, avocados, mangoes, baby corn and other crops are sorted based on specifications of size, colour and shape. Only those that make the grade are sent to exporters.
But exporters still reject a minimum of 15 per cent of what they receive from farmers, and sometimes as much as 50 per cent.
“You have to remove the ones bitten by the pests, those with the rust, those deformed... but the problem is, after doing all that, we still have rejects! After we have done all this grading on a relatively reliable system, we expect them to pay 100 per cent, so if they collect a tonne we expect to be paid for a tonne,” exclaims Peter Ngigi, a Kirinyaga farmer, in frustration.
“The final grading is done at the packhouse because it’s us who know what the client needs and what they don’t need,” explains Japhet Mbandi, Technical Manager for Keitt Exporters Ltd. But he recognises that some produce is rejected for purely aesthetic reasons:
“Whatever will not meet our quality specifications, we’ll have to reject, not necessarily because it cannot be consumed, but because of quality issues.” Companies like Keitt Exporters, which export to various countries, can minimise rejection rates by catering to different markets with different expectations.
While customers in the European Union have exacting standards, customers in the Middle East are less particular.
But even with diversified export markets, edible but imperfect produce is still rejected for export. While some produce, such as mangoes and avocados, are sold on the domestic market, others, such as green beans, are not in high demand in Kenya. Too expensive to return to farmers, rejected green beans are used to feed cattle in the Nairobi area.