Momentum grows to tackle $1 trillion worth of food wasted each year

By Sophie Edwards 15 March 2017

Maize cobs and tomatoes in baskets for sale at Ijaye market in Ibadan in Nigeria. Photo by: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture / CC BY-NC

The description of this project has been updated to clarify its objectives.

Hundreds of millions of people worldwide continue to suffer from chronic undernourishment, yet estimates suggest that one-third of all food produced goes to waste. With the world’s population set to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, momentum is growing to reduce the amount of food that is spoiled or thrown away each year, experts say — a critical but hugely underutilized means of improving global food security.

Food loss between the time of harvest and the time of consumption — known as post-harvest loss — squanders $1 trillion worth of food each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and enough produce to feed the world for two months. Causes are varied, including an inability to store, process or transport food properly.

Despite this, development efforts are still focused overwhelmingly on how to increase yields. 95 percent of all research investment in the area goes to increasing food production, with only 5 percent directed toward reducing losses, according to the FAO.

Aside from reducing the amount of food available, high levels of food waste impact the income of poor farmers, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, home to approximately 44 percent of the world’s undernourished people. The World Bank estimates that just a 1 percent reduction in post-harvest loss could lead to output gains of $40 million every year, the majority of which would go to smallholder farmers.

It also has severe environmental implications. The amount of water used to grow food that goes uneaten is more than the total amount of water used by any single nation, according to John Mandyck and Eric Schultz, authors of the 2015 book “Food Foolish.” Furthermore, the carbon footprint from the production, transportation, processing and decomposition of wasted food represents 3.3 billion metric tons of CO2, they argue — not far behind the level of greenhouse gases emitted by China or the United States.

However, experts told Devex that PHL “is not an intractable problem” and that momentum to tackle the issue is growing, with the first Africa-wide PHL conference set to take place in Kenya in this month. The Rockefeller Foundation recently launched a seven-year, $130 million project called YieldWise, aimed at reducing PHL by 50 percent across three different crops and countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The U.S. Agency for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are also working on the issue.

At the same time, they pointed to key obstacles, including a lack of integration of approaches in PHL programs; inadequate attention to the quality and safety of food being saved; and insufficient support for in-country innovators developing PHL solutions.

Devex spoke to a range of PHL experts to find out more about efforts to tackle the issue and the enduring challenges.

Local solutions

Kimberly Ann Elliott, a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development and expert on food security, said there are major variations between different crops and countries when it comes to the drivers of PHL. This can make broad, large-scale interventions difficult.

“Part of the problem with agriculture is the fact that you need regional and local solutions to address specific agricultural economic problems affecting a potentially relatively small area, so the problem of coordination is huge,” Elliott said.

For example, while keeping produce refrigerated along the supply chain tends to be a major issue for fruit and vegetable crops, affordable storage is a major barrier for agrarian crops such as maize, she explained. Solutions will therefore be specific to local contexts.

An integrated approach

The YieldWise program aims to work with 250,000 farmers to cut PHL in half by 2030 for crops in Tanzania (maize), Kenya (mangoes) and Nigeria (tomatoes). There is nothing new about the type of work being done, according to Amanda MacArthur, chief program officer at PYXERA Global, YieldWise’s technical partner in Nigeria. The innovation is in applying all elements of the work in tandem.

“It’s not an intractable problem or about new paradigms; it just needs good thinking around how to put the pieces together,” said MacArthur.

While previous interventions have tended to focus on separate elements of the problem — changing policies or training farmers, for example — PYXERA is trying to tackle the “whole system and bring all the players to the table at once,” MacArthur explained.

The project works across four main areas: initiating market demand by connecting farmers directly to buyers, cutting out the middleman; aggregating farmers to give them collective bargaining power and training; access to technologies such as solar cooling units; and access to loans in order to finance the purchasing of such inputs.*

The approach has only been through one harvest cycle, but according to Olivia Karanja, program associate at the Rockefeller Foundation, it is already showing strong results, with the first cohort of mango farmers reporting a greater than 30 percent reduction in PHL. The team is currently calculating the percentages for tomatoes and maize, she said.

Forging links between suppliers and buyers

As the second highest producer of tomatoes in Africa, and the 13th in the world, according to the FAO, Nigeria’s farmers rely on a good tomato harvest. But the fruit is notoriously difficult and average annual post-harvest losses can be as high as 45 percent, according to Lekan Tobe of PYXERA Global, deputy project director for the YieldWise project.

“The dynamics around tomatoes make it impossible to guarantee a steady income for farmers,” Tobe said.

Most tomatoes are sold fresh to supermarket chains, but in bumper years this market gets saturated. Since most farmers cannot afford cold storage facilities and do not have the technology to dry their crops, their unsold bounty goes to waste. Processing would be the ideal solution — turning the tomatoes into paste, for example — but while there are several processing factories in Nigeria, most are not operational, Tobe said. This is due to poor links between factories, suppliers and buyers, he explained.

One of PYXERA’s initial efforts as part of the YieldWise project was to develop better links between local farmers and a new processing plant at the center of the tomato farming communities in Kano, which opened in March 2016. However, the factory shut down just six weeks after opening due to a tomato shortage, which led to high prices.

Tomato processing factories struggle to turn a profit in Nigeria, Tobe said, because they lack strong outgrower programs to aggregate smallholder farmers and ensure a good supply price by signing pre-harvest contracts. YieldWise is supporting both the factory and the farmers to develop these links and hopes that the factory will reopen later this year.

However, Tobe said that YieldWise is also sourcing alternative buyers for its farmers’ crops, including large supermarket chains and European and American exporters. “It is important for the project to engage with alternative buyers not just as second option, but so that the market and supply chain will not be unduly distorted,” he said.

Quality as well as quantity

Difficulties in accurately measuring loss levels can pose a problem, said Elliott. For example, while the FAO puts losses at 20.5 percent for cereals and 37 percent for all food produced in sub-Saharan Africa, a 2015 World Bank study found that self-reported levels of post-harvest grain loss among farmers in the region was far lower, between 1.4 and 5.9 percent of national maize harvest.

In addition to this, the quality of the product being saved can be as important as the quantity, said Elliott, especially when it comes to export crops such as tomatoes and mangoes. This is a major issue that is still not receiving much attention, she said, and which is not always reflected in the data.

The same is true of food safety, which she described as a largely overlooked contributor to PHL. For example, in some cases, food loss is due to products being rendered unsafe for human consumption by the presence of aflatoxins — poisonous chemicals produced by certain molds that grow in soil and are regularly found in staple commodities that are improperly stored.

More attention, therefore, needs to be paid to the safety and quality of produce in PHL programs, as well as the quantity of food being saved, she said.

More support for local innovators developing low-tech solutions to PHL

The development community needs to increase its support for “bright innovators” who are developing solutions to address post-harvest loss in their home countries, suggests Ben Wokorach, the creator and CEO of Fruiti-Cycle, a fruit and vegetable distribution system.

The startup aims to reduce levels of PHL in Uganda from their current levels of 50 percent to less than 10 percent. The Fruiti-Cycle is an electric motorized tricycle with a detachable refrigerated storage unit that enables farmers to transport perishable produce over bumpy roads and long distances without worrying about it spoiling. The tricycle is solar powered, to cut down costs, and fitted with internal shock absorbers to minimize damage to the cargo.

“International development communities [have] powers to influence policies, financing capabilities and abilities to build infrastructure that can enable innovations or startups to thrive,” Wokorach said. “Let the international development communities support the innovations.”

* Update, March 16, 2017: This article has been updated to clarify the goal of the YieldWise project.

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About the author

Edwards sopie
Sophie Edwards

Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based out of Washington D.C. and London where she covers global development news, careers and lifestyle issues. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.


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