Ideas & Insights / All Perspectives / Ideas & Insights

The Human Experience of Post-Harvest Loss

Woman Africa Food
Photo credit: IDEO

It’s no surprise that when we develop new work at The Rockefeller Foundation, we look for ways to integrate the voices of beneficiaries and stakeholders. Without taking into account their perspectives, we believe we are far less likely to find solutions that are effective and sustainable. Indeed, we have found that the process of co-creating solutions with the people whose lives are most deeply affected by the problems we’re trying to solve can unlock new, innovative ideas for achieving change.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to visit a number of smallholder farmers and begin to understand the problem of food loss through their eyes. As part of our Waste & Spoilage in the Food Chain initiative, we had partnered with, an innovation and human-centered design not-for-profit, to help conduct qualitative research with farmers and other actors. We wanted to understand the causes and perspectives on food loss, a major issue resulting in lost income to smallholder farmers, inefficient use of natural resources, and decreased availability of safe, nutritious food.

The work with was designed to learn more about the human experience and “on the ground” aspects of the problem, as well surface potential innovations. A number of hands-on, innovative tools and methods were used to understand smallholder farmer’s perspectives, motivations, and behaviors around the issue of food loss to get to more effective solutions.


This research yielded several insights that guided our work moving forward:

  • Postharvest loss affects different smallholder farmers in different ways. By talking directly with farmers, we were able to identify various categories of farmers based on how they view and are affected by post-harvest loss. Grasping those differences was critical to understanding which types of solutions will work best, in which contexts.
  • Turning loss into an opportunity. Processing products that otherwise would have gone to waste can create new local employment opportunities. For example, through this work we identified a cooperative that converts peanuts to peanut oil, and converts into soap lower-quality peanuts that otherwise would have spoiled. This lowers the levels of food loss these farmers experience, and generates new income where there was previously none before. These opportunities will become more viable as the growing consumer class in sub-Saharan Africa demands more processed goods.
  • Aggregation enables new market linkages – and reduced loss. Agricultural production is fragmented across sub-Saharan Africa, with small-scale farmers contributing up to 80-90 percent of the region’s food supply, while distribution is relatively concentrated in large- and medium-sized distributors and retailers. This fragmentation often leads to inefficient supply chains that result in waste. We experimented with one farmer to aggregate beans from his neighbors to supply to a larger buyer, which resulted in these products more quickly finding secured buyers and resulting in a better price to these farmers.

These insights not only guided our early strategy work, but have also been “re-proven” at various stages of our strategy process when vetted with experts and through our continued learning. By speaking and listening to farmers, we’ve been able to design a more effective and creative approach to achieving a reduction in food loss with farmers as the end beneficiaries.

Leave a comment