Daily images of drought are a stark reminder of the importance of food for human health and prosperity. And while we know that agriculture is the economic backbone of most nations across Africa, food insecurity remains a significant problem.
There is an incongruous disconnect between the economic value we place on agriculture compared with food – yet they are different parts of the same whole.
Take the inefficiency in the food system that is rarely part of the national conversation but is responsible for up to half of all crops never making it to market, let alone our plates: Post-harvest loss.
This is harvested produce lost between farm and table, never to be recovered. It happens when food rots in markets, when it is poorly stored and can no longer be consumed, and when there is insufficient uptake from buyers.
Looking more closely, we see that almost 30 per cent of the inputs of time, energy, and finances spent to grow, transport, and process foods are ultimately lost – a tremendous market inefficiency. In fact, research estimates that post-harvest loss between farm and table totals about 30 per cent of all grains and 50 per cent of all fruits that are harvested. Just imagine how much more food could be put on the market if we solved this problem.
At a global scale, reduction of post-harvest losses could result in as many as 1.2 billion undernourished people becoming food secure.
Africa’s population is projected to double in the next 30 years, lending urgency to the need for solutions. The economic imperative to reduce post-harvest loss is clear.
Farmers could unlock the full value of their investments, while food distributors and processors could gain invaluable produce inputs to boost their businesses.
Consumers too would save money, from not having to pay more due to price inflation that mitigates the cost of food loss that is experienced early on in the food chain.
Several actors are beginning to recognise the opportunity presented by a focused reduction on post-harvest losses, and that the investments needed to reverse this reality are attainable.
Multilateral action through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 12.3) and the Malabo Declaration by the African Union to halve post-harvest losses by the year 2030 and 2025 respectively, has provided global and regional benchmarks to which others are already responding.
Researchers are developing low-cost innovative solutions for faster food processing, solar drying, active and intelligent packaging, and cold storage units, all to enable small farmers to not only manage their reliance on the market, but also sell their produce at the best price.
The Rockefeller Foundation, through the YieldWise Initiative, a 7-year $130 million investment targeted at reducing food loss, is helping farmers to link up with finance and markets, gain access to technologies, and receive training, with the overall goal of increasing the quantity and quality of food in Africa.
In northern Nigeria, for instance, YieldWise has fostered partnerships between local tomato farmers and the Dangote Farms Tomato Processing Plant, enabling the plant to start production for the first time in three years.
In Kenya, over 4,000 small-scale mango farmers were linked with new buyers, such as dried fruit processors and traders, resulting in approximately $1.2 million in sales in 2016.
The security of these buyer agreements allow farmers to invest with confidence, knowing that the market will absorb their harvest. Along with technological innovations that track the food value chain, and the widespread use of mobile money platforms, buyers and farmers can harvest the full financial value of their investments in ways that were impossible in the past.
Collaboration across these myriad actors and innovations is key for systemic change. After all, many post-harvest loss interventions are already in use for export market producers, but change has been slow to come to domestic food markets.
Small holder farmers have not had the type of access to the financing and partners they often need to afford new technology. It is clear that focusing on only one part of the system is an insufficient approach and will remain ineffective in providing long-term and lasting solutions to closing the food value chain gap.
Systemic change was the focus of the first All-Africa Post-Harvest Loss Congress recently held in Nairobi, with the aim of accelerating connection and collaboration points among a multitude of stakeholders in the value chain.
The Congress brought together over 600 innovators, researchers, policy makers and government officials to take on the challenge of post-harvest loss. This unprecedented continental effort in the area of reducing post-harvest loss provided an important foundation for how the agricultural sector can transform into a food security sector.
The gains from closing the post-harvest losses gap are life-changing for thousands of people – those facing food uncertainty as well as the farmers whose livelihoods depend on selling their harvest. Rarely have moral and economic imperatives been so equally aligned – practically everyone has an incentive to act.
Mamadou Biteye, OBE, is the managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation Africa Regional Office