The New York Times
By RACHEL CERNANSKY MAY 1, 2015 7:00 AM
Last year, Tanzania had exciting news: a bumper harvest of corn. But even as farmers were celebrating — corn is a staple eaten at almost every meal — much of the crop had already been spoiled, having grown moldy or been infested by insects and rodents. The problem was that farmers lacked the capacity to store food safely. Even the government’s national reserve system had run out of space to hold the overflow.
Such shortages of capacity persist, and not just in Tanzania. The Food and Agriculture Organization reports that largely because of a lack of infrastructure for refrigeration, transportation and sanitary, airtight storage, 15 to 20 percent of grain crops in sub-Saharan Africa and about half of fruits and vegetables show spoilage before they reach market.
The fight against hunger in Africa has experienced many successes in boosting agricultural production — from improving seeds to disseminating solar-powered irrigation. It’s only now that agricultural organizations and experts are recognizing that lack of storage represents a major impediment to keeping all those harvests edible. It’s a difficult problem because a vast majority of Africa’s crops are grown by smallholder farmers, who lack the resources to invest in refrigeration or effective storage facilities for staples like corn and beans.
Moreover, the expectation of large losses discourages farmers from taking steps to further increase their output, explained Zablon Ernest, an independent agricultural consultant and extension officer in Arusha, Tanzania. “A farmer will say, ‘Why should I produce more if I can’t store or sell it?’ ” he said.
Ernest graduated in February from an online class run by the United States-based Postharvest Education Foundation, which has taught basic crop management to students from 22 countries over the last four years. Tanzanian agriculture officials support such education, recognizing that teaching agricultural extension officers how to manage harvested crops has long been neglected in favor of focusing on production. “Farmers in the villages are desperate for this kind of information,” said Ernest.
In trying to salvage more of the nation’s harvest, Tanzania is of course pursuing the broader goal, common across Africa, of reducing hunger and boosting income. But while other developing countries are taking piecemeal steps to reduce crop losses, Tanzania’s response has been particularly robust. The government has a department devoted to reducing food waste, and its initiatives are informed by independent research.
Small-scale success stories are beginning to emerge. Julius Akanaay, for example, grows corn, beans and sunflower in the small village of Endagaw, south of Arusha. Before 2004, he and his family lived in a small mud hut, vulnerable to insects, rodents and rain. As a result, their stored crops often spoiled. “We sold early and easily lost what we kept,” said Akanaay. They now live in a cement house, which offers better protection — and more food security.
Partly out of fear of spoilage, but also out of a need for fast cash to pay debts, farmers often sell crops early in the season, when prices are low. If they wait for prices to rise, they risk their corn becoming infested. The tragedy is that, later in the season, they will have to buy corn at high prices to feed their own families. That is how some families get trapped in cycles of poverty.
Shamim Daudi and Janine Rüst of the Swiss nonprofit Helvetas want to change this situation. On a hot, dusty Sunday afternoon in February, I accompanied them while they took samples of corn from Akanaay’s storage room. With the Tanzanian government’s support, Helvetas is exploring methods of storing corn that will prove more effective than the polypropylene bags used by most rural farmers.
One promising tool is a triple-layer polyethylene-polypropylene bag (known as a PICS bag) that was developed by an entomology professor at Purdue University in Indiana; another is a simple metal silo small enough — a medium-size silo is about five feet tall — to be housed indoors. Both work by sealing out oxygen, thereby killing insects. The difference between a PICS and the common polypropylene bag is actually audible; with a bad infestation, you can hear insects squirming inside the polypropylene.
That’s why outreach workers like Daudi and farmers like Akanaay are optimistic: With these new tools, farmers who now sell low and buy high can see opportunities to hold on to more crops to feed themselves — or sell when it benefits them most.
Whether Akanaay and other farmers will be able to afford the metal silo (the one at his house now is part of the Helvetas experiment) remains a question. PICS bags are more affordable for farmers — although any added expense is still burdensome — but they are also more vulnerable to rodents. Which, if any, tool farmers will decide to purchase won’t be clear until the next harvest season.
Another challenge is preserving perishable goods in tropical regions that lack wide access to electricity. For years, Mariam Mustafa sold her tomatoes to the local open-air market near her farm in Lushoto, a major fruit- and vegetable-producing region in northeast Tanzania. “The customers didn’t care about quality,” she said. “They only cared about quantity.” She sold as much as she could — and threw away the rest.
Now, she belongs to a group of farmers who use a packinghouse in Lushoto that was built last year with support from the Tanzanian government and U.S.A.I.D. For almost half the year, farmers sort and pack snow peas for export. An Arusha-based export company sends a refrigerated truck — an extreme rarity in most of sub-Saharan Africa — to pick up the snow peas from cold storage units (also largely unheard-of) at the packinghouse. For the remainder of the year, farmers use the facility to improve the quality of their other produce and then sell it to higher-paying buyers like supermarkets. That, too, reduces the amount of waste.
The packinghouse operation is still a work in progress. Concepts like sorting good tomatoes from bad to reduce the spread of rot are new to many farmers; they have to be trained.
Mustafa still sells at the local market, but only after selling as much as possible through the packinghouse, where a harvest of tomatoes can bring in 400,000 Tanzanian shillings (about $215). That’s more than double the local market’s potential, because the improved quality and packaging allow the produce to fetch higher prices after being transported to more distant, higher-end buyers.
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The packinghouse is not suitable for every town, not least because the market for high-quality produce is minuscule compared with the scale of the rural markets, where an estimated 95 percent of horticultural trade in Africa still takes place. But where it’s feasible, it has the potential to simultaneously reduce waste and boost incomes, so other areas are now building or considering packinghouses.
As with most major changes, the biggest challenges are often behavioral and cultural. Farmers are accustomed to selling produce quickly, and consumers are used to eating farm-fresh food, not dried fruit or canned vegetables. It’s likely that the market potential for value-added produce will be greater among distant buyers like supermarkets and export companies than rural dwellers. Indeed, some farmers groups are looking to turn the region’s agricultural bounty of tropical fruits like mangoes and bananas and nutritious vegetables like amaranth and sweet potato leaves into products that wealthier customers will pay extra for.
This kind of endeavor requires an attitudinal shift. “Many women think, ‘When I grow crops, they are just for feeding my family,’” said Odette Ngulu, an agricultural consultant in Arusha. “They don’t have the idea of preserving.”
Ngulu has been training women’s groups to use solar dryers — simple boxed-in shelves of mesh designed for optimal heat absorption and air flow — to dry sliced or shredded produce in a day or two with adequate sunlight. The dryers protect the produce from contaminants like dirt and insects, and the UV-treated plastic cover allows light in but still protects the nutrient value. Production and sales are uneven, but the goal is to refine and perfect the process in order to appeal to people in those larger, wealthier markets.
There’s some reason for optimism. Packaged dried vegetables are already for sale in a few supermarkets in some African cities, including Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. In Rwanda, a women’s group dries pineapple in larger versions of the solar dryers Ngulu uses; they already sell to high-end clients around the country, and a client in Switzerland is interested in importing.
There are encouraging signs that food waste can be reduced in other parts of the developing world as well. Some involve other tools like the zero-energy cool chamber, a brick structure invented in India that uses evaporative cooling. In Rwanda, the government plans to improve farmers’ access to storage facilities nationwide; and in India, a network of agencies is offering subsidies for investments in post-harvest infrastructure and simple related technologies.
Bertha Mjawa was Tanzania’s first point person on post-harvest losses, as a senior agricultural officer with the Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives. She now works with a separate, but government-affiliated, project on the same issue. And she is seeing great changes from these efforts, which started over a decade ago but kicked into high gear only around 2010.
“Just last week, I met some women selling tomatoes on the side of the road,” she said. “Some of them graded, some didn’t,” she added, referring to the process of separating good tomatoes from bad. The women who sorted their tomatoes told her that they didn’t see any impact at first, but eventually customers noticed and buying habits changed. First came a bit of customer loyalty toward sellers offering the highest quality; economic benefit for the producers followed. “They’re starting to charge more — and people are willing to pay,” said Mjawa.
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Rachel Cernansky is a freelance journalist in Denver. She writes about agriculture, health, and the environment.