More must be done to protect crops after harvest

In sub-Saharan Africa, farmers can lose up to 30 percent of their crops post-harvest. To meet the growing demand for food from an increasing population, food systems – including post-harvest solutions – need to be transformed.

Blog: post-harvest losses

Maize can be dried and stored with little product loss. Credit: Bread for the world, Flickr 

Any degradation in the quality and quantity of food between the time of harvest and the time that food is due to be consumed is considered a post-harvest loss. The magnitude of post-harvest losses varies greatly between different crops. Nutrient-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables, perish faster than staple crops like maize and therefore have the highest rates of loss. Loss of food during this time significantly contributes to food insecurity in Africa and negatively impacts the incomes of millions of smallholder farmers.

The reasons for post-harvest losses include poor storage infrastructure, inadequate technology and farmers’ lack of know-how or skills. The buildings where crops are stored are often made from rudimentary materials, like straw or wood, exposing crops to rain and infestation by insects and rodents. Farmers sometimes use outdated or inadequate techniques and tools when harvesting and cleaning their crops, which can damage the grains.

Lack of adequate transport is another problem that leads to an increase in post-harvest losses. The lack of appropriate transport systems, like refrigerated trucks, means that crops spoil more quickly. Many roads in Africa are not adequate for proper transport of horticultural crops. More investment in transport facilities is needed to help significantly reduce post-harvest losses and supply nutritious food to remote locations across the continent.

Postharvest losses, at least at the farm level, can be reduced through a relatively modest investment and the solutions are simple. For example, the pot-in-pot system is an innovative food-cooling system that does not use electricity and could extend the shelf life of perishables from days to weeks. This storage infrastructure enables farmers to sell produce for longer periods of time and at higher prices and cut the daily market trips many families make to purchase fresh food.

Hermetic storage bags are another way to protect crops after harvest. The bag is made of an inner and outer layer and when closed it becomes airtight preventing oxygen and other gasses from entering or exiting. Sorghum, millet, dried maize and other cereals can be stored for up to two years and the bag is reusable.

Post-harvest solutions have been developed to address the various causes of food losses, however, some have not reached farmers or have not had the desired results. It is important that farmers are made aware of successful innovations and are included in the research process to develop post-harvest solutions so they are fit for purpose and provided to farmers at a price they can afford. Pan-African forums, like the Post Harvest Congress and Exhibition held in Nairobi in March last year are helpful to understand how this crucial sector is progressing but taking progress to scale may prove more difficult.

The benefits of reducing post-harvest losses for farmers, shop owners and consumers are substantial. Farmers would be able to earn more for their crops when the market isn’t flooded, shop owners and market sellers would have more produce to sell and more food would be available for consumers meaning less reliance on imports. More food would also be available for household consumption increasing the resilience of smallholder farmers to shocks and stresses. Lastly, improving post-harvest handling decreases the prevalence of illnesses such as diarrhoea and improves the nutritional status of farmers and their families.

Esther, a farmer from Eastern Uganda has benefitted from a 2014 World Food Program initiative to help reduce post-harvest losses. She received subsidized storage silos to protect her harvested crops from pests, mould, and moisture. Esther used to be forced to sell her crops immediately after harvest but with the new storage facility, she was able to fetch a much higher price for her crops. The initiative targeted 41,000 farmers in Burkina Faso and Uganda.

To achieve the Malabo Declaration goal of halving the current levels of post-harvest losses by 2025 in order to end hunger, serious consideration has to be given to how best to support farmers to reduce postharvest losses at the farm. At the same time, governments need to make sizeable investments to improve infrastructure across countries and particularly in rural areas, which will ensure that crops can get to markets and consumers in the right condition.

The opinions represented in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of individual Malabo Montpellier Panel members and their organizations.