By Daniel Munyambu
The United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) estimates that the global population will reach 9.7 billion people by 2050. This presents a challenge to feed an extra 1.2 billion people for the next 27 years. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), feeding a population of 9.1 billion people will require raising overall food production by 70 percent from 2005-2007 levels.
The stark reality of global food insecurity is made clearer by the 2023 report by FAO on the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World which estimates that about 735 million people in the world faced hunger in 2022. This meant 122 million more people faced hunger in 2022 than in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.
This upsurge has occurred against a backdrop of the effects of climate change as well as the declining availability of arable land due to increased use of land for non-agriculture activity.
Closer home, the number of chronically undernourished people in sub-Saharan Africa stood at 262 million people by 2022, with an additional 51.4 million people in the region now classified as undernourished since the outbreak of the pandemic.
As the world examines the growing need to sustainably feed the current and future generations, one of the issues that is increasingly coming into focus is post-harvest losses (PHL), which is also referred to as food loss. Post-harvest losses, which refer to the reduction in quantity and quality of agricultural produce that occurs between harvest and consumption, has significant implications for food security, economic stability, and environmental sustainability because it represents loss of valuable food produce as well as the inputs required to produce and distribute it.
At the global level, FAO estimates that the world loses at least one third of the food it produces before it reaches the market every year. These losses are said to be as high as 40 to 50 percent for root crops, fruits, and vegetables. Reports by the Fresh Produce Consortium of Kenya indicate that nearly 40 percent of the food produced in the country’s horticultural value chain is lost either through poor post-harvest handling, knowledge gaps on best practice, and improperly structured markets.
The causes of PHL and the stages at which they occur are numerous and varied depending on the supply chain, the location, and a variety of other contexts. PHL can be caused by challenges ranging from improper use of inputs to lack of proper post-harvest storage, processing, or transportation facilities.
For the better part of this year, I have been privileged to work with the Absa Bank Kenya PLC team that is working with key industry stakeholders and partners to address post-harvest losses. This partnership is anchored on the bank’s four-pronged approach on access to markets, access to information, access to coaching and mentorship, which essentially prepares the ground for access to sustainable finance. In the course of our work, we have traversed 10 counties in which we explored the causes of PHL as well as the opportunities to alleviate the problem and raise revenues for small holder farmers.
Firstly, inadequate infrastructure and storage facilities are a major cause of post-harvest losses. Insufficient storage capacity, lack of proper ventilation, and inadequate pest control measures can lead to spoilage, mould growth, and infestation. Additionally, poor transportation infrastructure can result in delays and damage to perishable goods during transit. This coupled with poor harvest handling such as rough handling during harvesting can cause physical damage to crops, making them more susceptible to decay. Delayed harvesting can also lead to over-ripening or loss of nutritional value.
Secondly, farmers in remote areas often face challenges in reaching potential buyers in a timely manner due to inadequate transportation networks or lack of market information. Aggregators or brokers tend to drive a cash and carry market that usually preys on the perishable nature of commodities to drive down prices especially for small holder farmers. As a result, the farmers may be forced to sell their produce at lower prices or even let it go to waste. This is quite the opposite for large entities as they negotiate contracts prior to production and onboard contracted farmers which helps drive down the post-harvest losses.
Thirdly, food waste happens after it has been cooked and served. Plate waste makes up a total of 41 percent of food waste in canteens, according to the EPA’s Food Waste in Canteens Fact Sheet. Food waste is not only about the food that is lost, but all the resources that are used in its production. While food loss on the plate may not have direct impact on the prices to the small holder farmers, it certainly worsens food and nutrition insecurity.
It is often argued that a goal saved is as important as a goal scored. In food loss, every post-harvest loss avoided is as good as a goal saved. While damage or loss can occur during all post-harvest stages, many of the causes of PHL are preventable through proper training, the adoption of appropriate tools or technologies, effective handling practices, sound policies, and marketing-related improvements.
Given its substantial impact, reducing PHL will help create more sustainable and resilient food systems, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. PHL reduction can simultaneously optimise agricultural productivity and increase the incomes of small-scale food producers and associated value-chain actors, especially women, who are traditionally responsible for many post-harvest activities.
In conclusion, banks in collaboration with governments and development organisations can support farmers to acquire storage infrastructure like cold storage and climate-controlled warehouses that will ensure the preservation of produce before it reaches the market. By adopting a comprehensive and holistic approach that encompasses improved infrastructure, technology adoption, education, market linkages, supportive policies, and behavioural change, we can mitigate post-harvest losses and creating a more resilient food system.
The writer is the Country Agribusiness Specialist at Absa Bank Kenya