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Addressing Post-Harvest Loss with Behavioral Science

Elena Matsui — Former Director, Power & Climate, The Rockefeller Foundation
Dana Guichon — Vice President, ideas42

IMG_0935Nearly all of the game-changing agricultural innovations over the last 30 to 40 years – chemical fertilizer, improved seed varieties, resource conservation best practices, among others – have one thing in common: human behavior. For almost all of these success stories, farmer behavior change has been the “last-mile” achievement necessary for large-scale impact. To test the promise of applied behavioral science in the field of international agricultural development, the Rockefeller Foundation provided a grant to ideas42, a nonprofit organization dedicated to using academic insights from behavioral science to solve tough social problems, to explore the behavioral challenges contributing to post-harvest loss in Tanzania. The analysis focused on the uptake of Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage (PICS) bags, which have been promoted by the Foundation’s YieldWise initiative as a low-cost, highly effective solution for grain storage.

The ideas42 team initially suspected that uptake of this new technology may pose a challenge as decades of behavioral research show that uptake of new technology is often much lower than expected even given the relative benefits to be gained. A field visit in Tanzania further strengthened these suspicions. Interviews revealed that while many farmers intended to use PICS bags for their household grain storage, they don’t always follow through on their intention. Why the “intention-action gap”?

One key driver of low uptake is the misalignment of available capital, intention to purchase, and the need for storage. Maize farmers in Tanzania experience cyclical income flows. They are often flush with cash immediately after harvest, live off of this income throughout the year, and then find their cash reserves running very low as the next harvest approaches. However, farmers generally purchase their crop storage materials right before harvest time – the time of year when they have the least cash. While the new PICS bags are relatively inexpensive, they are more expensive than conventional storage bags, and farmers may be unable to afford them at buying time. Once the current harvest is sold, farmers are flush with cash, but at this point in time current crop storage needs have been taken care of and it’s no longer at the top of their priority lists.

“One solution would be to establish a layaway program that breaks the cost of PICS bags into manageable sums and prompts farmers to start planning for this purchase well in advance of when they need it.”

How might we address this misalignment? One solution would be to establish a layaway program that breaks the cost of PICS bags into manageable sums and prompts farmers to start planning for this purchase well in advance of when they need it. At the beginning of the growing season, farmers could
commit to purchasing a certain number of PICS bags. Throughout the year, they would pay the price in weekly or monthly installments. By harvest time, the bags will have been paid off in full and can be picked up when farmers are ready to use them. Not only does this design make the cost of bags feel more manageable, it also reduces the amount of time that passes between when farmers form their intention to purchase PICS bags and when they are prompted to act.PICS bags collage

Additionally, uptake remains low because present bias drives short-term thinking. Present bias is a universal human tendency to overweight gains or losses experienced now compared to those in the future. For example, we think losing $5 today “hurts” more than losing the same $5 a week from now. We are also willing to lose more in the future, up to a point, in order to avoid giving something up today. In Tanzania, the upfront cost of PICS bags is about five times more expensive than conventional bags. Farmers have much to gain by switching to PICS bags, but this investment won’t pay off until the second or third year of using the bags. Furthermore, calculating the two or three-year return on investment of PICS bags, relative to conventional bags, is a fairly complex calculation because of differing cost structures of the two options. Given that we’re all prone to present-biased decision-making, it is no surprise that farmers in Tanzania focus on the lowest-cost solution in the present.

What can be done to counteract present-biased thinking? One solution is to find opportunities to focus farmers’ attention on the total cost of the available storage options over the lifespan of a PICS bag, which averages three years, rather than on the upfront costs. If in addition to the purchase price of the bags themselves, other input costs such as the pesticides needed with conventional storage bags but not PICS bags, are factored into the total price comparison, PICS bags are a relative bargain. To make this salient, a simple cost comparison tag could be affixed to PICS bags or distributed as an informational flyer wherever the grain storage bags are sold. This visual would highlight the cost per year of each storage option, making it immediately obvious to farmers that PICS bags are actually a more cost-effective choice over time.

A third barrier to uptake is that farmers’ mental models of PICS bags limit their appeal. Mental models are our perceptions of something: how the mind categorizes it, the way we understand its purpose or function, and the understanding of whom it is for. These perceptions shape how we value something and in turn our behaviors. In this case, the PICS bags look and feel very similar to conventional, cheaper storage bags, and their added value as a storage option that protects grain from pests is not immediately clear. Because of this perception, farmers mentally categorize them as more expensive grain storage bags, not as a superior technology worth five times as much as the conventional option. Under this mental model, farmers may be hesitant to invest in the higher-cost PICS bags.

How can we use behavioral design to shift farmers’ mental models of PICs bags and make them more appealing? One solution would be to enhance the functionality of the PICS bags to increase the perceived value and draw farmers’ attention to this value. This could be achieved by creating a sturdy outer layer for the PICS bag that could also double as a tarp, a useful tool during harvest and post-harvest processing. While this added functionality may marginally increase the cost of PICS bags, it could also lead farmers to mentally re-categorize PICS bags as something distinct from and higher value than traditional bags.

These are just a few insights that emerged from the analysis. You can read the full scope of the work in a recently published paper, “Reducing Post-Harvest Loss: A Behavioral Approach.”

Utilizing these types of behavioral solutions may increase uptake of the PICS bags, which can in turn help farmers reduce post-harvest loss, and strengthen livelihoods. The behavioral principles we’ve identified through this work are likely to be relevant in a wide range of countries and crop value chains and amongst a diverse set of agricultural challenges ranging from post-harvest loss, to productivity growth, and resource conservation, among others. The application of behavioral science holds great promise to spark new solutions to persistent challenges and spur game-changing product and service innovation to help improve the lives of millions of people throughout the world.

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