A Silent Scourge Is Wiping Out Crops in Africa

Farmers are going hungry because they lack ways of keeping food from rotting or being destroyed by pests after harvest.
(Photo: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)
Oct 5, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Rachel Cernansky is a freelance journalist based in Denver, Colorado.

On a warm, sunny afternoon, Hawa Saidi Ibura stood outside her home in rural Tanzania and held out a basket of dark red beans to show why she could no longer get excited about a bountiful harvest. Insects swarmed over the beans, and nearly every one had a hole in it—evidence that the pests had already done their damage. Ibura would pick up beans only to find that they crumbled between her fingers. “We can’t eat them, we can’t sell,” she said, looking forlornly at the basket.

Ibura is one of millions of farmers in Africa and across the developing world who lack access to adequate storage facilities to protect their food from insects, rodents, and mold. Postharvest crop loss has long been one of the more overlooked challenges in efforts to alleviate hunger and poverty globally. (Postharvest loss is not to be confused with food waste, where consumers and retailers in industrialized countries simply throw out what they don’t get a chance to eat or sell.) The African Postharvest Losses Information System, a research project financed by the European Commission, has estimated that 10 to 20 percent of all grains harvested in sub-Saharan Africa are wasted because of poor storage or farming practices. Estimates for fruits and vegetables are much higher. A 2011 World Bank report found that reducing postharvest losses by just 1 percent in sub-Saharan Africa could help put $40 million in farmers’ pockets.

Destroyed harvests often mean farmers and their families go hungry. Crop loss is also an environmental issue, as it generates unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions and wastes water. Climate change will likely exacerbate crop losses as rising temperatures accelerate the growth of mold inside a farmer’s storage room.

The issue will be the focus of a conference this week that will attract hundreds of people from around the world to Rome for the First International Congress on Postharvest Loss Prevention.

“There hasn’t been any organized gathering by any of the communities involved in postharvest loss work, whether it’s research or policy or implementation,” said Prasanta Kalita, director of the Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss, which is hosting the conference. He said one key goal for the event is to develop a global road map for solutions to the problem.

“Right now, there might be some idea or strategies within organizations or global partners, but there is not one global road map for postharvest loss prevention,” he said. “We are targeting smallholder farmers—the people who cannot afford [advanced] technology, large-scale things out there. So what are the essential interventions that we can adopt for those countries?”

So far, some of the most promising solutions are the simplest ones. Ibura, for example, has taken part in a research project testing different types of storage systems for staples such as beans and corn. Inside a room at her house, researchers are trying out metal containers and different bags. The most effective and practical option seems to be the Purdue Improved Crop Storage bag, which is simply a sack made from three layers of plastic. It does a better job of keeping insects out—as well as oxygen, which kills insects that are often already inside the bag. The bags are modestly more expensive than the lightweight plastic sack that is widely used.

Reducing waste among fresh produce is trickier, as the obvious (if expensive) answer, refrigeration, is simply not an option in most rural areas that lack electricity. At a bustling wholesale market in Arusha, a tourist town a short drive from the base of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, traders sort truckloads of fruits and vegetables. The enormous piles of mangoes and oranges that are too bruised to sell at retail will be made into juice, fed to animals, or simply thrown out.

At smaller, more rural markets—where the majority of produce in sub-Saharan Africa is bought and sold—the situation is bleaker. In a 2011 report, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that 40 percent of fruits and vegetables in the region are lost before they are sent to a distributor. One solution that people are experimenting with for preserving fruits and vegetables is solar dryers, which are covered shelving units that allow sliced fruits and vegetables to dry in the sun to create products such as banana chips, dried mangoes, and dried green vegetables. Another low-tech solution is a simple brick structure called a zero-energy cool chamber, which uses evaporative cooling to help preserve produce for days or even a week or longer.

Lisa Kitinoja, founder of the Oregon-based Postharvest Education Foundation and an organizer of the Rome conference, is writing a report for the U.N. on integrating postharvest practices into national agricultural education and outreach systems. Such practices include everything from better sorting of produce, so that a rotting vegetable doesn’t spoil others, to using solar dryers.

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Kitinoja has worked on postharvest loss for three decades and has found only a handful of countries that are incorporating postharvest practices into outreach efforts. Tanzania is one of them. Zablon Ernest, an extension officer in Arusha, said farmers are hungry for information on better postharvest practices. He hears farmers ask why they should bother trying to boost their yields if they don’t have effective means of storing crops.

After discarding a basket of insect-ridden beans, Ibura walked to the room where researchers were testing PICS bags. Looking at the corn inside one of them and finding it perfectly yellow and intact—unlike the rest of her corn, which sat in plastic sacks in her larger storage room and suffered the same fate as the beans—she stepped back in surprise. “I don’t even believe this is my corn,” she said.

Travel for this story was funded by a Mongabay Special Reporting Initiative.