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Awareness: A Key to Reducing Post-Harvest Loss in Africa

In December 2013, I attended a workshop organized by the Global Knowledge Initiative (GKI), a grantee in The Rockefeller Foundation’s Waste and Spoilage Initiative. At one point, a workshop participant arrived with a conspicuously bulky package. I asked about the package and learned that it contained Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage (PICS) bags, described as the new hermetic bags, or “triple bags,” designed to prevent stored grains and cereals from pest attacks for up to nine months or a year.


Discovering the Resources

The Waste and Spoilage Initiative is working to identify opportunities and test key solutions in the supply chain to reduce food loss. We have learned that food loss in developing countries adversely affects the livelihoods of smallholder farmers by decreasing saleable harvest, reducing their ability to manage changing market prices and their income. An ardent farmer myself, I also knew that farmers lose 30 to 40 percent of their stored grains, so I decided to purchase five bags for myself, at just $3 each, and then used them to store my grain harvest from the April 2014 harvest season.

After nine months, I opened the bags and, sure enough, none of the grains had been affected by pests. So I wondered: given my knowledge of, and involvement in, agriculture, if the bags are so effective, why hadn’t I heard about them before? If I, a so-called expert, had no clue about the technology, what about the small holder farmers in Africa?
PICS diagram

Closing the Knowledge Gap

Sadly, that state of affairs—a lack of awareness of existing post-harvest solutions—is part of the story for many small scale farmers. They continue to store grains in regular bags, leading to high quantities of food loss. They sometimes use pesticides, which, if not used according to recommended doses, can cause negative health effects.

“So I wondered: given my knowledge of, and involvement in, agriculture, if the bags are so effective, why hadn’t I heard about them before?

Besides this knowledge gap, other contributing factors to post-harvest loss are lack of market access, low adoption of technologies, improper drying, use of rudimentary threshing techniques, and lack of cooling systems after harvest and during transportation for goods like fruits and vegetables. These are some of the challenges that this initiative is trying to address.

During our Food Loss Quest to India in April 2014, we learned that affordable post-harvest solutions like Solar Dryers, Cool Bot technology, and Zero Energy Cooling Chambers (ZECC) exist. Key critical factors to scaling up these innovations will be working with aggregated groups of farmers, and ensuring access to ready market for their produce, either through contract farming or direct sourcing. Processing and value addition are also key to reducing post-harvest loss, especially for fruits and vegetables.

Zero Energy Chambers

A Zero Energy Cooling Chamber (ZECC)

Applying the Solutions

In July 2014, the Waste and Spoilage Initiative team held a convening of private sector partners at our Bellagio Center, where we learned about various strategies and models that they use to counter food loss. I was particularly inspired by the story of Kenya’s Uchumi Supermarket. Uchumi currently processes overripe fruits from its own shelves before they ‘go bad’ and sells the juices to its customers. Additionally, it is working with other partners to promote tomato farming in greenhouses among its farmers to stagger tomato production and reduce excess supply from during peak season. This ensures that farmers get a fair price for delivered tomatoes throughout the year.

Evidence shows that various interventions along these lines have contributed to reduction of food loss. For example, the Rwandese government intervention over the past five years has reduced food loss in the case of maize from 30 percent to 19 percent through targeted investment in the post‐harvest value chain. Purdue University found that, on average, additional cash flow due to storage of cowpeas in PICS bags is estimated at $26.58/100 kg bag more than sale at harvest.

The Waste and Spoilage Initiative continues to explore various prototypes with the highest potential to scale to reduce post-harvest loss—at the same time meeting a triple bottom line of improving livelihoods, revaluing ecosystems and advancing health for vulnerable people and communities.

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