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Postharvest losses fuel food insecurity

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Huge loss! Months of toiling in the fields during ridging, planting, weeding, fertiliser application and harvesting end up making some small-scale farmers food insecure. Post-harvest losses are a painful reality which is threatening the agriculture industry in Africa. BRIAN LIGOMEKA writes.

Memories of a painful post-harvesting loss which 32-year-old Elton Chinama from Milepa in Chiradzulu suffered two years ago still linger in his mind.

Chinama recalls how he ended up facing unexpected food shortage despite working hard in his maize field.

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“In 2014, I worked hard and managed to harvest 20 bags of maize. Unfortunately, I lost 14 bags to weevils. I only managed to benefit from five bags which I used as staple food in my household for four months,” he says.

His mistake was storing maize in bags without applying pesticides.

“After that post-harvest loss, I am now wiser because I now use pesticides,” he says, explaining that postharvest losses are making some households food insecure,” he says.

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The attack by weevils was not the first loss that Chinama suffered. Before resorting to use of bags to store his grain crops, he used to keep his maize in a granary constructed with wooden poles and bamboos.

“I abandoned the system of storing maize in a granary outside my house because thieves one night stole my maize… Enemies of grain storage include rodents, thieves and weevils,” he complains.

Magnitude

Despite aspiring to achieve food security, postharvest losses haunt many farmers in Malawi and other African countries.

According to research by a local charity, the Catholic Development Commission of Malawi (Cadecom), postharvest losses for Malawi sometimes go as high as 600,000 tones.

A 2012 report by Cadecom titled “Post Harvest Losses in Selected Crops in Malawi” observed that postharvest losses occur at each stage of the value chain of the selected crops in which the farmer is directly involved, from harvest to markets.

“The major causes of these losses include methods of post-harvest handling and pests. The main pests that are responsible for post-harvest losses that have been identified include weevils, livestock, birds, large grain borer, wild animals such as elephants; rodents and thieves,” observes the report.

According to the report, the major contributing factor is the use human power to perform most postharvest processes including harvesting, shelling and threshing and transport as well as small-scale farmers lacking knowledge in proper storage of crops.

Malawi is not the only country whose farmers are haunted by the problem. In Tanzania, poor storage almost leads to loss of almost 40 percent of all grains costing the East Africa nation $332 million in revenues annually. Similar worrying statistics are reported in other African nations.

Estimates by the African Postharvest Losses Information System (APHLIS) indicate that crop losses in southern Africa amount to $1.6 billion per year or about 13.5 percent of the total value of the region’s annual grain production. Meanwhile, a recent Food and Agriculture Organisation/World Bank report on the situation pegged the value of such losses in the entire sub-Saharan Africa at a whopping $4 billion a year.

The post-harvest losses have huge impact on the food security in many African countries which are already wobbling out of food shortage crises fuelled by climate change. In Malawi, for instance, the twin problems of drought and postharvest losses resulted in 6.5 million people of the country’s 17 million population surviving on food handouts last year.

At global level about 800 million people still suffer from hunger as climate change and to some extent post-harvest losses continue to threaten food security.

New initiatives

In order to avert post-harvest losses, Africa nations are championing new storage initiatives including provision of metal silos to smallholder farmers.

“A small metallic silo, I use has many benefits. It offers full protection of the grain against water moisture, theft, rats, weevils, larger grain borer and termites,” says Ephraim Bondo, a farmer in Mulanje who simply improvised a metallic silo using a drum.

In some parts of Africa, big metallic silos also serve as a bulk store for maize grain that helps people in the community to buy food during critical food lean periods.

“Even if I keep my grain for many months, the metallic silo technology helps me to maintain quality of the grain for many months which enables me to fetch competitive prices during the time of sale,” says Bondo.

Another approach for storage of produce which farmers and grain traders have fallen in love with is the Warehouse Receipt System (WRS). Basically, before being accepted for storage in a WRS facility, the commodity is inspected to verify that it complies with set quality standards.

Once accepted, a detailed contractual document, known as a warehouse receipt which guarantees the depositor a specified grade, quantity and security of the stored agricultural commodity is drawn.

Two companies offering such services in Malawi are Agricultural Commodity Exchange for Africa (ACE) and Auction Holdings Commodity Exchange (AHCX).

According to AHCX Communications Manager Thom Khanje, the WRS has many advantages as the receipt issued may be used by the farmer as collateral for accessing loans, traded or used for delivery against financial instruments such as forward contracts.

“The warehouse receipt systems address challenges many farmers face such as high degree of storage losses due to substandard crop storage facilities; lack of access to formal, collateralised credit at reasonable interest rates among both grain traders and smallholder farmers,” observes Khanje.

He adds: “The beauty with the WRS storage facilities is that they are accredited and are professionally managed, and hence farmers are guaranteed zero storage losses due to pests and theft.”

According to Khanje, by guaranteeing the quantity and quality of the commodity stored, the system is responsible for improvement food security.

While many commercial farmers and grain traders have embraced the development, small-scale farmers cite a number of barriers to adoption of the WRS such as high transport costs from their rural villages to WRS centres.

Global ambition

Despite the implementation of several initiatives, postharvest damage loss of staple grains is a common problem undermining household food security. The high burden of food losses due to poor transportation, processing, cooling and storage facilities continue to reduce the amount of food available to feed the family.

The issue of postharvest losses is not only a matter of concern at household level but also at global level where a total annual wastage of food is estimated at 1.3 billion tonnes. Paradoxically while such a huge amount of food is wasted in many ways including postharvest losses, almost one billion people go undernourished and another one billion go hungry.

Considering the global agreement on the Sustainable Development Goal number 12 (SDG 12.3) which aims to halve per capita global food waste and reduce food losses by 2030, the need for ensuring sustainable consumption, production, storage and processing systems of food is now a must.

With small-scale farmers like Chinama appreciating the use of strategies to control postharvest losses, there is a chance of addressing food wastage which is fuelling food shortages.

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