Innovation is key in curbing runaway post-harvest losses

Friday April 21 2017

Patrick Mburu sorts avocados for sell at Ol Kalou Market.

Patrick Mburu sorts avocados for sell at Ol Kalou Market. The fruits are now in season, which could lead to glut necessitating their proper post harvest handling. Innovations play a major role in averting post-harvest losses of farm produce. PHOTO | JOHN GITHINJI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By MAMADOU BITEYE
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Daily images of drought are a stark reminder of the importance of food for human health and prosperity.

And while we know that agriculture is the economic backbone of most nations across Africa, food insecurity remains a significant problem.

There is an incongruous disconnect between the economic value we place on agriculture compared to food, yet they are different parts of the same whole.

Take the inefficiency in the food system that is rarely part of the national conversation but responsible for up to half of all crops never making it to the market, let alone our plates.

This is harvested produce lost between farm and table, never to be recovered. It happens when food rots in markets, when it is poorly stored and can no longer be consumed, and when there is insufficient uptake from buyers.

Looking more closely, we see that almost 30 per cent of the inputs of time, energy, and finances spent to grow, transport, and process foods are ultimately lost – a tremendous market inefficiency.

In fact, research estimates that post-harvest loss between farm and table totals about 30 per cent of all grains and 50 per cent of all fruits that are harvested.

At a global scale, reduction of post-harvest loss could result in as many as 1.2 billion undernourished people becoming food secure.

The economic imperative to reduce post-harvest loss is clear. Farmers could unlock the full value of their investments, food distributors and processors would gain invaluable produce inputs that could boost their businesses.

INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS

Consumers too would save money, from not having to pay more due to price inflation.

Several actors are beginning to recognise the opportunity presented by a focused reduction on post-harvest loss, and that the investments needed to reverse this reality are attainable.

Researchers are developing low-cost innovative solutions for faster food processing, solar drying, active and intelligent packaging, and cold storage units, all to enable small farmers to not only manage their reliance on the market, but also sell their produce at the best price.

The Rockefeller Foundation, through its YieldWise Initiative, a seven-year $130 million investment targeted at reducing food loss, is helping farmers to link up with finance and markets, access technologies, aggregate and receive training, with the overall goal of increasing the quantity and quality of food in Africa.

In Kenya, over 4,000 small-scale mango farmers were linked with new buyers, such as dried fruit processors and traders, resulting in approximately $1.2 million in sales in 2016.

The security of these buyer agreements allow farmers to invest with confidence, knowing that the market will absorb their harvest.

Along with technological innovations that track the food value chain, and the widespread use of mobile money platforms, buyers and farmers can harvest the full financial value of their investments in ways that were impossible in the past.

COLLABORATIONS AND INNOVATIONS

Collaboration across these myriad actors and innovations is key for systemic change. After all, many post-harvest loss interventions are already in use for export market producers, but change has been slow to come to domestic food markets.

Smallholder farmers have not had the type of access to the financing and partners they often need to afford new technology.

It is clear that focusing on only one part of the system is an insufficient approach and will remain ineffective in providing long-term and lasting solutions to closing the food value chain gap.

The gains from closing the post-harvest loss gap are life-changing for thousands of people – those facing food uncertainty as well as the farmers whose livelihoods depend on selling their harvest.

Africa as a continent cannot afford to waste food. With the opportunity before us, and the recipe in our hands, the final ingredient is the will to put collaboration and partnership first, so that we may unlock outsize gains not only for farmers, but for all of us – consumers of food.

Mamadou Biteye, OBE is the MD for the Rockefeller Foundation Africa Regional Office.