Bringing Fresh Solutions to the Challenge of Global Food Security

A version of this post originally appeared on the Innovation Labs Insights Center, a joint project of Bridgespan and The Rockefeller Foundation.

“Why have the rather simple, globally recognized solutions failed to change the post-harvest loss equation in Sub-Saharan Africa?”

In a world where global hunger affects nearly a billion people, approximately one-third of food produced for human consumption is either lost or wasted. Food loss exposes an obvious hole to repair in the fabric of global food security and global development. Yet the challenge of post-harvest food loss represents a confounding paradox.

On one hand, many approaches for reducing post-harvest loss are quite rudimentary and well known by the international community. Examples include ensuring proper handling of perishable crops from field to market, providing shade cover for harvested crops, and using locally available materials to construct improved staple crop storage. On the other hand, post-harvest loss remains a persistent challenge, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, where as much as 39 percent of food produced per capita is lost or wasted. The Rockefeller Foundation estimates these losses reduce the income of approximately 470 million farmers and other agricultural value chain actors by as much as 15 percent.

You might ask: Why have the rather simple, globally recognized solutions failed to change the post-harvest loss equation in Sub-Saharan Africa? The answer lays primarily in the fact that reducing post-harvest loss at scale is not about applying known technologies or techniques to a particular point in the agricultural production process. Rather, it requires orchestrating a concert of actions and interactions by millions of people, at multiple points in many value chains, in numerous countries. Many of these actors never come into contact with one another, despite their interdependence. However, each influences the agricultural system’s ability to reduce post-harvest loss for the millions affected by it.

Understanding the full system of actors, resources, interactions, and incentives at play is critical to formulating effective post-harvest loss solutions. Without this systems understanding, proposed “solutions” often prove too narrow in scope to achieve transformative impact. In worst cases, proposed solutions fail because they do not fit the realities of a place or a market. For example, expensive metal silos that rely on collective storage mechanisms often do not work in communities where people prefer at-home storage.

Recognizing these historical shortcomings, the Global Knowledge Initiative—an international nonprofit that builds collaborative networks to solve development challenges—with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, created a social innovation lab to design and deliver a systems-based approach to addressing post-harvest food loss in Sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2009, GKI has mobilized problem-solving networks around critical challenges affecting poor and vulnerable populations, particularly in the areas of agriculture, water, and climate change. These networks leverage best-in-class research, scientific expertise, technologies, and other resources to address pressing challenges. GKI’s social innovation lab process began by clarifying the full range of opportunities, resources, and stakeholders available to tackle the post-harvest loss challenge in Sub-Saharan Africa. Only by elaborating this systems understanding through a number of participatory tools and methods did the GKI social innovation lab help global practitioners spark novel ideas for how transformative impact could be achieved on the food loss challenge.

Bellagio Social Innovation Lab
Photo Credit: Stanford ChangeLabs

Offering a number of tools that bring diverse problem solvers together to frame problems in new ways and mine available resources to innovate better solutions, the lab undertook the following four iterative phases in its innovation design process:

  • Problem Framing: GKI engaged more than 120 food value chain actors across six countries to collectively map the many opportunities for and barriers to reducing post-harvest loss in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Resource Assessment: From the highest priority opportunities identified by experts, GKI developed case studies of ongoing interventions to explore what resources are available and needed to achieve impact at scale.
  • Solutions Visioning: GKI convened a workshop where diverse experts prototyped creative strategies to reduce post-harvest loss, informed by the prioritized opportunities, resources, and stakeholders identified in previous design phases.
  • Collaboration Colloquium: In early 2015, GKI will host a colloquium to connect potential partners, mobilize available resources, and elaborate action plans aimed at delivering post-harvest loss solutions by using global networks in novel ways.

The emergence of a dynamic network of individuals and institutions committed to reducing post-harvest loss in Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most exciting outcomes of the GKI social innovation lab process. To date, more than 200 global stakeholders across five continents are engaged in sourcing, refining, and amplifying strategies for change, from smallholder farmers to corporate leaders to leading post-harvest researchers. As a collective, they are poised to exert influence over the various levers of change that bear on reducing post-harvest loss, including policy, business, academia, and civil society. Network formation is not an unexpected byproduct of the GKI Social Innovation Lab process, but an explicit goal. The emerging post-harvest food loss network reflects the diversity, expertise, and buy-in required for tangible systems change in the years to come. Indeed, no matter how well designed an intervention, the chances for reducing post-harvest loss at scale remain dubious without a committed and effective network of stakeholders to take forward the strategies. Collaborative innovation will be the legacy of such a network’s effectiveness.

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