A new report by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the World Bank has estimated the value of post-harvest grain losses in sub-Saharan Africa at around $4 billion a year.
The report, “Missing Food: The Case of Postharvest Grain Losses in Sub-Saharan Africa” released on May 31, is produced in collaboration with the United Kingdom’s Natural Resources Institute.
Investing in post-harvest technologies to reduce food losses could significantly increase the food supply in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the new report as technical experts from around the region meet to discuss the issue.
“This lost food could meet the minimum annual food requirements of at least 48 million people,” said FAO Assistant Director-General Maria Helena Semedo. “If we agree that sustainable agricultural systems need to be developed to feed 9 billion people by 2050, addressing waste across the entire food chain must be a critical pillar of future national food strategies.”
Estimates provided by the African Post-harvest Losses Information System, has it that physical grain losses prior to processing can range from 10 to 20 percent. In Eastern and Southern Africa alone, food losses are valued at $1.6 billion per year, or about 13.5 percent of the total value of grain production.
While no similar regional loss estimates are available for Central or West Africa, assuming losses of a similar magnitude, the value of post-harvest grain losses in sub-Saharan Africa could total $4 billion a year out of an estimated annual grain production worth $27 billion (2005-2007 annual average).
The FAO said this is roughly equivalent to the value of annual cereal imports in the region during the same period. Given the near doubling of global grain prices since 2005-2007, the value of current losses is likely much higher.
The report notes that losses occur when grain decays or is infested by pests, fungi or microbes, and physical losses are only part of the equation. Losses can also be economic, resulting from low prices and lack of access to markets for poor quality grain, or nutritional, arising from poor quality or contaminated food.
“Food losses contribute to high food prices by removing part of the food supply from the market. They also have negative environmental impacts as land, water and non-renewable resources such as fertilizer and energy are used to produce, process, handle and transport food that no one consumes,” the report added.
The recent food and financial crises have heightened the focus on post-harvest losses. And Jamal Saghir, Director of the Sustainable Development Department, World Bank Africa Region believes “Africa cannot afford to lose 20 percent of its grain production.” “Reducing food losses is increasingly recognized as part of an integrated approach to realizing agriculture’s full potential, along with making effective use of today’s crops, improving productivity on existing farmland, and sustainably bringing additional acreage into production,” Saghir adds.
Technologies to reduce lost
The report highlights a variety of practices and technologies available for reducing post-harvest losses, including crop protectants and storage containers such as hermetically sealed bags and metallic silos.
While a number of these technologies have proved successful in Asia, the report warns that more research and piloting is needed to identify interventions adapted to local environments in Africa.
To succeed, interventions must be sensitive to local conditions and practices, be viewed within a value chain lens, and ensure that appropriate economic incentives are in place.
“Technologies that have taken off in Asia, such as small-scale rice-drying technology and the introduction of pedal threshers and rice mills, have had successful adoption in some parts of Africa and may become even more accepted as migration, aging farming populations, and high rates of HIV/AIDS infection reduce available labour and raise wages.”
Governments can help by creating an enabling environment; reducing market transaction costs by investing in infrastructure such as roads, electricity and water; and strengthening agricultural research and extension, particularly in identifying where losses occur along the food chain and how to tackle them, the FAO suggests.