The amount of food lost each year due to post-harvest loss (PHL) is enough to feed the total number of undernourished people globally. Over 870 million people suffer from chronic undernourishment, 27% of which are in Africa alone.1 This challenge is exacerbated by a growing global population, particularly in Africa where the population is expected to grow by 2.5% (1990 to 2020) compared to a global average of 1.1%.
Given the existing food security and increased resource scarcity challenges, the issue of food loss and waste (FLW) has become very important for the international agenda as it has far-reaching social, economic and environmental implications. FLW are of particular concern in the Sub Saharan area. Their reduction is therefore widely acknowledged to contribute to abating interlinked sustainability challenges such as food insecurity, climate change, and water shortage.
Where are we?
According to FAO, about one-third of all food produced worldwide each year is lost or wasted. That represents a total of almost 1.3 billion tonnes. The wastage involves food destined for human consumption, which is lost at all stages of the food system. Such phases act in different ways and at varying levels, according to their place in the food supply chain and the geographical location, as well as the social and economic conditions that prevail.
Developing countries are the worst affected by food losses as part of agricultural production (during harvest, transport, and storage of foodstuffs produced), while higher income countries are mainly affected by food waste at retail and consumer level (in households and catering).
Such polarization of the problem highlights the extent to which inequalities cause dysfunctions: on the one hand there is under-development, which hampers investment in infrastructure, and on the other, there is abundance (often unevenly distributed), which drives wastage.
Insufficient focus on reducing PHL
PHL interventions can have broad economic, health, and environmental impacts. While a PHL intervention will have the primary result of reducing losses, it may also create important secondary impacts; for example, it could improve the livelihoods of farmers and other value chain actors, or provide an opportunity for nutritional security and production diversity, or improve the use of natural resources and stewardship of the broader environment.
Increases in available food are primarily driven by three types of interventions:
Increasing the area of land cultivated
Increasing yields on existing cultivated land
The majority of efforts have primarily been focused on increasing yields, and for good reason – yields in Africa (1.1 tons per hectare) were approximately one-third of the global average (3.2 tons per hectare) between 2008 and 2010.
At the same time, however, efforts should be intensified to reduce PHL so that more of the food produced actually make it to consumers, for the same level of inputs. This will help to ensure that envisaged improvements in crop production (via improved yields) have the desired impact on food availability for growing Sub Saharan populations.
While increasing crop production has, and continues to, receive great attention, disproportionately fewer resources have been employed to address the related and equally challenging issue of PHL.
Numerous solutions can be employed to reduce PHL and create desired secondary impacts. These solutions can be broadly categorised as product solutions (i.e. technologies – which can be further broken down into storage and handling technologies and value addition technologies) or process solutions (i.e. procurement channels).
Storage and handling solutions refer to those technologies that improve conditions at the storage and handling stage of the value chain and are primarily focused on reducing losses – examples may include hermetic bags or metal silos that allow SHFs to reduce losses by limiting crop.
Other product solutions are primarily focused on value addition (these could also be defined as processing solutions), but also have the effect of decreasing perishability and, thereby reducing PHL. These solutions include mobile processing units (MPUs), solar dryers and graters & pressers. They typically reduce PHL by limiting the handling and transportation of raw crops (if they are employed on- or near-farm) and by increasing shelf life.
Procurement channels are not necessarily designed to reduce PHL; however, their successful implementation allows for the efficient transfer of crops from producers and agro-processors to consumers. This means that crops are less likely to perish while farmers wait for a buyer and, hence, is a critical step in ensuring crops achieve their intended use.
The need for a market-led systemic approach to addressing PHL has become apparent from past failures and emerging successes. The technology push-approach that dominated PHL-related activities in the 1970s and 1980s is still prevalent but has largely not had the desired impact on loss reduction. Traditionally, loss reduction was seen as a stand-alone intervention for improving food security. Triple bagging of cowpea in West and Central Africa, as well as the mechanised harvesting and cleaning of equipment to reduce losses for wheat and maize in Uganda, are good examples of recent interventions that have followed this approach. Despite some success at reducing on or near-farm losses, many interventions of this type have faced challenges in:
Achieving adequate adoption
Attracting sufficient long-term financial support
Achieving impact at scale and
Ensuring food produced makes it to consumers.
The topic of PHL is for really important for me as Cameroon (country were I was born) is the breadbasket of Central Africa, but still we lose 45% of all fruits and vegetables that we produce.
We find more and more cities in Africa with a population in need of new experiences and new products, overall national product, start to have the favor over imported ones not only because they appear to be less expensive but for a matter of local development.
A great number of initiatives are on the track nowadays despite it in my point of the main focus should be on the knowledge sharing (Workshop and formation) and the marketing of a new product.
Willy Gabriel Mboukem II
Founder of PHL Solutions