Agricultural waste plagues Sub-Saharan Africa, where several nations straddle the world’s largest desert with its arid winds, and the choking humidity of one of the globe’s largest rainforests. A dedicated cadre of specialists there have been battling the problem for decades, and simple technologies are helping them, but governments’ lack of funding, ineptitude, and recalcitrance continue to undermine their efforts.
“The future of development means putting post-harvest losses on the agenda, but for this region it’s continued to be about production, production, production, ”says Augustine Okoruwa, a Nigeria-based veteran of this battle and currently project manager for the Postharvest Loss Alliance for Nutrition at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. “If you could reduce losses from the huge amount of production that now is wasted, that could go a very long way toward not having to produce so much.”
Problems vary by country, but in general are comprised of “waste, garbage, and destruction from farm to table,” according to Kofi Mansu Essuman, a member of Ghana’s Institute of Packaging. Fruits and vegetables can’t get to market intact or quickly enough; there isn’t enough cold storage to preserve them once they’re there; and grains rot into huge piles of detritus because of a lack of mechanized processing devices and systems.
The reasons are many. Sub-Saharan produce farmers and their families struggle to get fruits and vegetables to market before they spoil in torrid temperatures and damp air. Wastage begins the moment growers leave their farms because their means for transporting crops are crude, especially the initial steps for getting them across the countryside to locations where they can be staged for urban markets.
“We have very poor packaging systems for some of our products,” Essuman says, “so between the farm and the market it’s extremely informal. Many people have to carry their crops from the farm, and how much can they carry? This all contributes to waste.”
After getting produce onto trucks, the problem is that most crops in Sub-Saharan Africa head to market in inadequate containers, including cloth bundles, sacks made of jute or polypropylene, woven baskets, wooden crates, and even in bulk. “When tomatoes are piled up on trucks, you get a lot of juice coming out of them,” says Chijioke Osuji, a food engineering expert at the Federal University of Technology in Owerri, Nigeria. “Many of them get mashed up even before the trucks arrive.”
Poor roads make journeys rougher on crops that may have to travel 1,000 miles. And once produce reaches city markets, access to cold-storage facilities “is very poor,” Okoruwa says, “and costs are very high. Government policies funding reduction of these losses are very poor.”
Reformers in the region are trying to get business and governments to finance and build pureeing facilities close to where tomatoes are grown, for instance. Another solution to reduce waste is simpler and would seemingly be easy to implement. Specialists have been encouraging small-scale farmers to use returnable plastic crates for harvest, transport, and storage of fresh produce, a practice that repeatedly has been shown to reduce damage and post-harvest losses. Such crates were introduced into the region in 2014 by the United Nations.
Yet this eminently practical system isn’t more widespread “because governments aren’t willing enough to introduce crates, because of money,” Osuji says. “The crates have to be dropped back to farmers. Studies show that it’s still profitable to create this two-way system, but it takes time to work out the value chain, and governments are slow.”
The challenge to Sub-Saharan farmers is similar in drying their maize, rice, and other grains before they rot. Raw crops pile up at rice-milling sites because “the milling equipment at many of these places won’t separate the bran from the husk, and because the bran has oil, the husks can’t be used,” Osuji says. “So they just dump it” into five-story-high piles of wasted grain.
One solution to this problem is obvious: threshing grains in the fields. “That could finish in hours instead of taking three to four weeks at the mill,” Osuji says. But government funding of diesel-powered threshers, and even financing of farmers’ own purchases of the machines, has been inadequate.
Essuman’s broader idea is to help push the region into the “circular economy,” which he describes as a “closed-loop system where waste products are remade or recycled to generate new products, services, and applications.”
Yet there’s a huge element of futility even amid all these efforts. “I have watched this for about 20 years, and about every five years we talk about doing something about it, but nothing happens,” Essuman says.
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