Saving the harvest: Reducing food waste key to ending hunger, poverty


Over Sh40 billion goes down the drains annually when farmers lose tonnes of maize, beans and potatoes

Saturday December 21 2019

Kenya loses up to a fifth of the maize it produces in a year, enough to satisfy the country’s demand for two months, reveals a review of the country’s recent food production and consumption data.

On average, three million out of 40 million bags of maize harvested yearly go to waste before they are eaten or sold to consumers, according to data from the Economic Survey 2019. Other agricultural and research institutions put the loss at between 4.8 million and eight million bags annually.

This at a time when the country faces a perennial food deficit, in some cases accompanied by appeals to the public and donors for help. One out of three Kenyans is food insecure and a similar ratio of children under five are stunted (chronically malnourished) in Kenya, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The Nation Newsplex analysis finds that while the efforts towards food sufficiency has focused mainly on improving yields, much less attention has gone to addressing post-harvest losses.

“As we emphasise on higher yielding varieties, we also need to safeguard what has been produced by minimising the losses,” says Dr David Kagima, director of research, production and extension at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).

The share of wheat wasted has doubled in five years, from six per cent in 2014 to 12 per cent in 2018 while potato farmers, too, could not account for 13 per cent of their harvest, up from 10 in 2014, shows figures from the latest Economic Survey.

“We don’t have enough and modern industrial scale storage facilities in the country, and the smallholder farmers, who produce about two-thirds of the food, lack home-based small scale storage capability,” says Mr Alexander Owino, a financial sector specialist and consultant

One in six of the 2.6 million tonnes of vegetable harvested in 2018 went to waste, as the dairy sector continue to pour away seven per cent of the milk produced.

Produce is lost mainly through spillages during handling, transportation, processing and marketing; rotting and aflatoxin contamination due to improper handling and inadequate storage technologies; being eaten or damaged by pests such as birds, insects and rodents; and mechanical damages during farm-level processing and off-farm value addition.

This month, dairy farmers in Kanjuiri in Nayandarua County had to pour milk as the continuing rains rendered roads to markets inaccessible.

Most of the losses are due to storage challenges and the lack of cold chain supply for perishable products like milk, observes Mr Alexander Owino, a financial sector specialist and consultant.

“We don’t have enough and modern industrial scale storage facilities in the country, and the smallholder farmers, who produce about two-thirds of the food, lack home-based small scale storage capability,” he says.

Farmers in high rainfall areas store for consumption or sale a half of the maize they harvest, compared to 45 per cent by those in low rainfall areas, according to a study by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

A significant majority of small scale farmers who keep their produce at home use rudimentary and traditional methods, which in most cases are all they know of or can afford, often resulting to losses. Post-harvest losses reduce the income of smallholder farmers by 15 per cent in Africa, according to YieldWise Food Loss, an initiative started by the Rockefeller Foundation to intervene in Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania.

The share of commercial bank loans advanced to the agricultural sector has declined overtime, standing at 3.7 per cent in 2017, down from 5.4 per cent in 2010. Smallholder farmers are likely to be the majority of the ones shut out by this shrinkage.

“Farmers face challenges in ability to pay upfront for inputs and products. This has been one of the main challenges driving adoption of post-harvest solutions in the country,” says Patrick Bell, chief innovations officer at One Acre Fund, an organisation that works with 392,000 farmers in Kenya and over 800,000 in sub-Saharan Africa. One of their services is provision of Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) bags, a highly recommended technology for small scale farmers, on credit and lets them pay in small instalments at their convenience over a period of nine months.

In 2018, about 11 per cent of the maize produced was sold to marketing boards, according to the Economic Survey 2019.

Large scale scandals

The National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB), which mainly carters to large scale farmers, has more than just capacity challenges. It has been riddled will large scale scandals, leading to the loss of loss of billions of shillings in misappropriated funds and spoilt grain.

Some 750,000 bags of maize worth Sh1.8 billion under the care of NCPB was destroyed after the board declined to abandon a fumigation chemical which depots had reported was no longer killing weevil, according to the Report of the Auditor General for Financial Statements for National Government for Year 2016/2017. The report says that the board also failed to provide documents to show how it spent Sh2.1 billion it was given by government to buy subsidised fertiliser.

Such losses starve the country of much-needed nutrients, deprive farmers of returns on their investment and, in some cases such as where aflatoxin is concerned, are detrimental to health. Over Sh42 billion went down the drains in 2017 alone when farmers lost about 800,000 tonnes of maize, beans and potatoes, according to the Newsplex analysis. The previous year the value of the three crops lost post-harvest was higher at about Sh44 billion.

A recent exposé by an NTV investigative piece 'White Alert' established that some packets of maize flour stocked by retailers in the country have traces of aflatoxin. Aside from fatalities in the short term, aflatoxin also causes liver cancer, birth defects in children and a decreased resistance to infectious agents like HIV and tuberculosis. About 125 people died between January and June 2004 in the Eastern region after consuming maize contaminated with aflatoxin, one of the worst outbreaks.

A study published in the Journal of Agricultural Extension and Rural Development in 2014 revealed that two in five farmers in the lower Eastern region do not know of any method of preventing aflatoxin contamination.

Dr Kagima recommends strict policies and education to safeguard human and animal life through post-harvest management, noting that post-harvest losses and farm produce contamination starts early in the value chain. “Things like aflatoxin are found even in the soil in fields that are already contaminated. This is transmitted to the next crop and to milk through animal feeds,” he says.

Simple technologies

The research, production and extension directorate at JKUAT has already come up with simple technologies such as those that can address the problem of grain breakage or spillage during threshing.

Agriculture’s share of contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) dropped marginally to 34 per cent in 2018 from 35 per cent in 2017 after a long period of consistent growth.

To enhance food and nutrition by 2022, with strategies including post-harvest technologies, the government set aside Sh42.6 billion in the 2019/2020 budget, an amount experts have seen as a continuation of the underfunding that has characterised food security intervention in the country. This amount is equal to the value of the harvested maize, beans and potatoes that was wasted in 2018.

And in situations of resource constraint, it is likely that little will go, as has been the case, into curbing post-harvest losses.

“The government could do a lot to increase adoption of post-harvest solutions among smallholder farmers by, for example, keeping such marginalised groups top of mind in policy instruments,” says Mr Bell.