Key Sector: Harvest and the Challenge of Post-Harvest Losses

While the word “harvest”often connotes images of bounty and plentiful supplies of food, the reality is that in places like Sub-Saharan Africa yields taken in during the initial harvest of crops are typically not representative of the amount of food that will actually make it into the markets and, subsequently, the dinner tables of those for whom the food is grown.  

Postharvest loss, and overcoming it, is one of the biggest challenges facing farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. Postharvest losses can be the result of various factors, which include, but are not limited to: rodent damage, insect damage, mold, and transport or storage damage. Agronomists suggest that countering these factors needs to be done with precise attention to growing seasons; however, smallholder farmers mostly do not have access to satellite data or forms of the specific scientific data needed to improve their farming experiences.

According to the World Bank, “postharvest loss increases with humidity and temperature, and declines with better market access, post-primary education, higher seasonal price differences, and improved storage practices.” Both natural and man-made elements contribute to 37 percent of food that is lost between production and consumption, which, according to the FAO, equals about 1.3 billion tons of food lost or wasted every year around the world.

Ultimately, farmers will need to consider improved storage technologies to decrease harvest loss. The African Postharvest Losses Information System (APHLIS) explains that maize alone accounted for 20 percent of loss in Ethiopia and 18 percent in Uganda on average. The World Bank suggests that Ugandan farmers and agricultural stakeholders only used improved storage technologies 0.6 percent of the time. The lack of improved storage technologies plays a significant role in the amount of food that is available to farming communities and the communities in surrounding areas. APHLIS states plainly that “small[holder] farmers lack the capital, infrastructure and know-how to efficiently store, transport and market their surplus yields,” which leads to a wide-ranging postharvest loss problem that in turn impacts smallholder farmers’ incomes.

APHLIS will be the first to examine the impact that postharvest loss has on nutrition in low- and middle-income countrie. The research project, NUTRI-P-LOSS, “will focus on important food security crops” including “cowpea, maize, and sweet potato” in an effort to enhance global understanding of these losses, contributing to essential agricultural interventions that may decrease postharvest loss among these and additional crops across the continent.

An International Food Policy Research Institute study found that the harvest stage and processing stage is where most loss occurs. While damaged crops usually affect farmer income, this IFPRI study found that the damaged crops were not wasted but consumed by the farmer’s household.

As with many agricultural stages, what is lacking is clear and thoroughly-disseminated techniques and education for those who need it most. More education would significantly increase farmers’ knowledge, reducing postharvest losses across smallholder farms. The goal in every agricultural sector is to augment food security, and the harvest period is essential for this to occur globally. The World Food Bank combats this challenge through a systemic approach to farm management.  When soils are better managed and quality seed and fertilizers are used, farmers don’t suffer nearly as much from the pH imbalances that lead to unwanted bacterial and fungal growth. WFB partners with MFIs (MicroFinance Institutions) to support the financing of high quality inputs for participating farmers and cooperative groups. In addition, our advanced storage techniques allow us to guarantee offtake from farmers, wherein they are held in reserve in regional locations. But in order to end hunger on our planet, postharvest storage that decreases loss and maintains nutritional value must be implemented across smallholder farms on a global scale so they can continue to do the work to feed our world.