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Getting More Good Food to Market in Sub-Saharan Africa: Five Observations

Rafael Flor — Former Director, YieldWise

Think about this for a minute: every year, a third of the world’s food -1.2 billion metric tons – is either lost or wasted.

This has both economic and environmental consequences, and now, even Pope Francis in the Encyclical Laudato Si, calls it a moral issue, a “sin”. As far as he is concerned, “whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of hard working smallholder farmers.”

While food loss and waste continues to be a challenge, it also presents many social business opportunities. Recently, Rockefeller Foundation colleagues and I visited partners who are investing in increasing efficiencies within value chains and so reducing the amount of good food that is being wasted. We went to Tana River on Kenya’s coast to see our mango value chain work, to Kano State in Nigeria for the tomato value chain, and Senegal and Mali where we shared experiences and lessons with agricultural and microfinance experts at SAED in St. Louis and Oxfam’s Savings for Change respectively.

Reflecting on our first year of YieldWise Initiative, combined with these recent travels, five observations are top of mind right now:

Global food systems need to cater for post-harvest loss reduction and sustainability – but don’t.

Currently, decisions are based on limited data, resulting in both under- and over-utilization of agricultural inputs, with little attention to overall sustainability. While this is slowly improving, we need to take a good, hard look at how local production systems address food loss. Not only do we need data to make accurate calls, but also to invest in technologies and practices that build resilience and sustainability in local systems. Use of data at the farm and value chain levels could potentially revamp African agricultural systems and increase transparency, accountability, measurability, and traceability—all desired attributes of 21st century systems. Furthermore, data would increase the efficiency of Africa’s agricultural systems by moving from value chains to integrated land management systems. This approach is being embraced by leading corporates like Unilever, and innovative partners like Ecoagriculture and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN). With more firms venturing on this path, we will get closer to practical solutions that smallholder farmers can adopt across the continent.

Influencing behaviors and lifestyles will bring the change we want to see.

This is proving to be a marathon and not a sprint, as we contend with how to change generations’ worth of practices that are ‘normal’ among value chain actors. Change is critical in how smallholder farmers produce their crops, to how transport and logistics companies handle produce, to how agricultural products are processed and marketed, to how consumers choose brands and products, to what investors demand as a sustainable business and profit. Data, again, will underpin some of these changes, an example being automated shopping that allows for product selection based on data-driven labels. Still, consumers also require lifestyle adjustments, choosing protein-based diets that depend less on meat and have zero-tolerance for food loss and waste, and supporting brands and corporates that adjust their business models to increase the sustainability of agricultural systems, not just dancing to the beat of shareholders.

Post-harvest loss is a symptom of an inefficient value chain.

We are all familiar with images from the developing world, of smallholder farmers scattering seeds by hand, applying fertilizer blends that have most likely been formulated for cash crops, harvesting produce with inappropriate tools—causing bruising and damage to fruits, vegetables and roots—and transport and logistics services that reduce the value of the product as it moves to the market. In northern Nigeria, we saw tomatoes packaged in manually woven 60-kilogram raffia baskets, which pile pressure on the tomatoes at the bottom and bruise those on the edges. The baskets were tied up on top of fuel tankers—clearly not the best practice –for transport to markets. We saw large heaps of mangoes transported from fields in Tana River to processing plants in Mombasa, yet even though their services are terrible, half of the market value of produce is still spent on transport and logistics. Suppliers pay $0.03 for a mango at the farm gate and deliver it to a processor at $0.06.

But inefficiencies do not end there, they also apply to access to finance. Processors and buyers have expressed a need to access more financing to expand their sourcing operations and client base. Currently, they have tied large sums of money to the procurement of agricultural products from smallholder farmers and pre-financing stock until they are sold—cash flow management has been known to be a key determining factors for start-up survival in the continent. To make businesses more bankable, value chains need to introduce de-risking mechanisms. This is what the YieldWise is promoting by aggregating smallholder farmers and linking them to markets. Structuring a value chain and making it more predictable would give farmers—and other actors—greater access to finance and make technologies more affordable, and henceforth reduce post-harvest and food loss.

It will take multi-stakeholder partnerships for greater impact.

These could include the private sector, government, FBOs, and NGOs. As in the case of SAED in Senegal, these partners would convene key stakeholders, facilitate dialogue among them, promote coordination of interventions and overall alignment of investments. Additionally, these platforms would de-risk investments and bring about the required systemic change—as the saying goes, it will take a village to achieve this!

The kind of market system innovations that will help will take time to mature.

During our visit, SAED officials pointed out that their successes have been the product of 40 years of continued investments and leadership, starting with a clear vision of the government to develop the Senegal River basin. This narrative is evolving in Africa, with governments acknowledging that the agricultural transformation that is needed should be private-sector led and government-supported, a process that begins with the government’s own clear vision.

In a year of YieldWise, we have learned that reducing post-harvest loss is possible. We have innovations such as the Farm to Markets Alliance, which is bringing together an ecosystem of maize buyers, tomato aggregation and packing houses, and the use of appropriate harvesting tools and fruit fly traps—used in Latin America for decades, but just introduced to Kenya—which are working, and some others that have potential to work.

Now, we are plowing forward to see the structuring happen, allowing these solutions to work their magic and contribute to food loss reduction. We are optimistic that we will get there, especially with the new wave of innovation and entrepreneurship coming from young generations in Africa and elsewhere.

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