Post-harvest loss a threat to food security

Tuesday March 21 2017

Nehemia Ndegwa inspects his tomato farm

Nehemiah Ndegwa inspects his tomato farm in Mathakwa-ini village, Nyeri County, on March 31, 2016. The country enjoys favourable weather, and the statistics certainly support the case for food sufficiency. PHOTO | BONIFACE MWANGI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By KATHAMBI KAARIA
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The drought affecting over three million Kenyans raises pertinent questions on the country’s ability to feed all citizens.

The country enjoys favourable weather, and the statistics certainly support the case for food sufficiency.

Agriculture accounts for 25 per cent of the GDP, employing over 70 per cent of the population, and utilising half of the 15 per cent arable land for crop production.

The challenge, however, is heavy reliance on weather for food production, making the country vulnerable to unpredictable weather.

Until we invest substantively in irrigation for sustained food supply, reducing post-harvest loss by efficiently managing the current production capacity, will guarantee citizens sufficient food throughout the year.

Expanding crop cultivation, and other pre-harvest initiatives only result in more unmanageable produce.

For a country whose 75 per cent of basic food comes from cereals and pulses, food inadequacy is exacerbated by overreliance on cereals such as maize, while overlooking other nutritious, and climate-resilient indigenous produce such as sorghum, millet, cassava, and cowpeas.

Diversifying consumer palates will expand food options.

Countries lose about 30 per cent of post-harvest food, an equivalent amount in production of inputs such as seeds and fertilisers.

Developing countries lose most food after harvest due to poor infrastructure and technology, pests, extreme weather, and poor handling, storage and distribution.

INTERVENTIONS

Industrialised countries waste food — primarily fruits and vegetables — at retail and consumer levels due to fussiness over aesthetically imperfect foods and expiration dates.

Curbing losses advances food security, and the benefit is a healthy populace.

It also promotes efficiency in feeding growing populations within limited land, water, and energy resources.

Kenya has taken steps to manage post-harvest loss with hermetic bags, and silos to safeguard food from pests and environmental damage.

While storage is critical, it is only a microcosm of the technical and economic interventions required.

Besides storage, post-harvest activities also include harvesting, threshing, cleaning, drying, processing, transporting and marketing.

Technical interventions revolve around automation to eliminate waste due to human handling and processing, maintain food quality, limit loss to mold, pests, and bad weather, and free up labour to boost productivity.

It also reduces succession cropping, where farmers sacrifice one crop for another in a rush to keep up with changing weather patterns.

Mechanisation is also vital to preserve perishable foods. Economic interventions are the next logical step to link farmers to markets and industry.

This ensures that farmers are knowledgeable on technologies, climate, seed quality, energy use, grain science, pest control, nutritional qualities, and have access to credit and market information.

Information enables influencing of consumer and retailer behaviour to eliminate wastage due to aesthetics, and to educate consumers on drought-resilient food options.

PRICE RISK

The final intervention is creating markets that give the best commercial value.

The practice of collecting grain centrally means that most farmers sell to government at low prices.

But government handling facilities lack the capacity to absorb all the harvest. Limiting loss requires farmers to invest in storage.

Enabling them to diversify their price risk, boosts income, enhances their capacity and willingness to invest in other technologies, and on the farm. Ultimately, these efficiencies reduce food loss, and promote food security.

Ms Kaaria is a sustainability strategist; [email protected]; Twitter: @kkaaria