When it comes to feeding the world, we need to find a better way. We grow enough food for everyone on the planet, yet one person in eight goes to bed hungry each night (World Food Programme 2016). Clearly the food isn’t getting where it’s needed, and even when it is available, malnutrition is often a chronic problem. While there is disagreement on whether we’ll be able feed the 10 billion population expected by 2050 (Plumer 2013, Gimenez 2012), much can be done today.
Solutions to food insecurity in the developing world must be simple in order to be feasible, but simple does not mean easy. Nonetheless, ingenious ways to address the problem have been developed and implemented around the globe. Three innovative approaches include carefully designed storage bags that reduce crop losses from infestation, simple processing equipment that improves harvesting and production efficiency, and traditional cross-breeding of food crops to increase natural nutrient density. Each development came with a bonus: unanticipated additional benefits.
Better Storage Reduces Food Loss
The amount of food lost after harvesting is hard to digest. Global postharvest losses are estimated to be 30–40% (Postharvest Education Foundation 2016) and can exceed 50% in some developing countries (World Food Preservation Center 2016). The reasons for food loss can include lack of proper storage facilities, poor farming and harvesting practices, market volatility, inadequate distribution, and infestation. Improved storage is an effective way to address food insecurity. The challenge is to develop solutions that meet local constraints, especially cost.
Sometimes the answer is simply the right storage bag. For example, an elegant protection system was developed by a research team led by Larry Murdock, distinguished professor of Entomology at Purdue University. “In 1987, we were asked to improve cowpea storage in Cameroon,” he recalled, where cowpea weevils were feasting on the harvest. The outcome was straightforward, highly effective, and affordable.
“Our team first had to figure out how the insects reproduced inside the sealed bags,” Murdock explained. Where did they get the water needed to survive? The researchers realized that the bugs made their own H2O by metabolizing available starch, with oxygen fueling the process.
The solution was to choke off the oxygen source. Murdock’s group eventually came up with the hermetic Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) bag. It utilized a woven polypropylene outer bag for strength and some oxygen protection, but added two inner bags of 80-micron high density polyethylene as an oxygen barrier. Using two bags provided backup insurance but also slipped easily over each other, reducing stress and tearing. The triple threat worked beautifully.
The critical success factor was to ensure a hermetic seal. Farmers were taught to leave a 12–15-inch lip at the top of each liner and the outer bag, twist tightly, fold in half, and secure with twine. This was easily learned; over 3 million farmers in 46,000 villages in Africa and Asia have been trained to use PICS bags.
Show and tell is always the best way to sell skeptical, resource-limited smallholder farmers on new technologies. So Murdock’s team worked with users to test the newfangled bag and document its efficacy. They held village bag-opening ceremonies where farmers who tried the bags untied them for the first time after six months’ storage to illustrate that no pests got in. Those events were a big deal in the small communities. One massive celebration in Burkina Faso attracted 10,000 people and has become a biannual event.
In Niger they didn’t have to wait six months to know the bags were working. Farming families often store crops in their homes for protection against theft and vermin. One farmer was convinced early on that the bags were effective because the ones in his bedroom were both cool and quiet. What did that mean?
Multiplying insects generate heat, and the storage bags were often warm to the touch. Not these bags. The weevils also make a high pitched clicking sound when feeding, but these bags were silent. Properly sealed, the bags protect crops almost indefinitely. The highlight of the 2015 Burkina Faso celebration was the opening a bag from 2007; the eight-year-old cowpeas were as pristine (and edible) as they day they were sealed.
Farmer feedback also helped the Purdue crew optimize the bag size. It was originally designed to hold 50 kg of product to facilitate handling. But farmers asked for cost-effective larger bags, saying they’d figure out how to haul them. The team developed 100-kg bags, and they now represent the vast majority of sales.
Benefits Outweigh Costs
What about the price—could farmers afford the bags? At about $2.50–$3.00 each, the cost was about three times higher than traditional single-woven bags. Follow-up studies indicated that smallholders earned an additional $27.00 per 100-kg bag of cowpeas per season, and crops could be stored and sold when prices rose. Farmers clamored to invest.
There were other important benefits. The ineffective single bags required repeated applications of pesticides, a toxic added expense that sickened and killed people. Pesticides are sometimes misused in developing countries due to lack of understanding of proper use and handling, but PICS bags eliminate the need for spraying.
The three components are also easily separated to be inspected for tears, and entire bags or individual layers can be reused 3–5 times. That puts the cost on par with single bags over time. Additionally, torn bags are often repurposed for other uses.
The PICS project has proven to be a significant achievement in reducing postharvest loss and is currently in its third round of funding. The initial phase was implemented in 10 African countries. The second phase, PICS 2, successfully tested the bags for 12 other crops (nuts, grains, beans, and seeds) and a variety of associated insects. The current PICS 3 phase seeks expanded commercialization across Africa. Scaling to reach as many beneficiaries as possible is perhaps the most challenging problem in international development.
The Purdue Research Foundation has licensed 17 private manufacturers and distributors to commercialize the bags, and PICS activities have been implemented in more than 25 countries in Africa and Asia. So far, about 7.5 million bags have been sold (Figure 1). That represents 710,000 metric tons of food recaptured from hungry insects to feed hungry people.
Applying the KISS Principle to Equipment
Crops are often lost because they can’t be harvested efficiently or processed before they spoil. The best solutions for developing countries are high in creativity and low on bells and whistles. How do you design processing equipment that is durable, reliable, and simple enough to be used by untrained populations? (Oh, and you’re not allowed to use electricity or fuel.)
The challenge of low-tech equipment design was taken up in 1981, when a poor Indian village in Uttar Pradesh was having a potato problem. In the unrelenting Indian heat, the harvested potatoes would last only a month before they spoiled. Farmers were forced to sell the produce quickly at low prices.
When George Ewing, Bob Nave, and Emery Swanson (from General Mills and Pillsbury) learned about this spoilage problem, they gathered a group of volunteers with expertise in engineering and food processing and set up a working group in a church basement. That group would later become the non-profit Compatible Technology International (CTI), based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
The team developed Cool Storage Sheds that used evaporating water to lower the shed’s air temperature. That allowed farmers to store potatoes for several additional months and enjoy a longer selling season with better prices.
CTI engineers then helped the farmers add value to the crop. They designed manually operated potato peelers and slicers to make dried potato chip snacks with extended shelf life. The farmers tripled their incomes by selling the chips and entrepreneurs earned money by making and selling the potato processing equipment. The gift kept on giving.
Listening to Users Helps Optimize Machine Design
CTI continues to expand its menu of postharvest processing equipment for smallholder farmers. Each design is a new challenge.
For example, in 2013, CTI developed equipment for pearl millet processing in Senegal. The individual thresher, stripper, winnower, and grinder units were cumbersome to use. With the support of an industrial designer, CTI held farmer focus groups to obtain user insights, giving special attention to the women who were the primary users of the equipment.
The grain stripper, thresher, and winnower morphed into a compact single unit that was less expensive than the three individual machines. With additional feedback from the women, further refinement made it much easier for them to operate the equipment, even with babies on their backs. The new device captured 95% of the grain without breaking it, operating three times faster than manual methods. That not only eased the labor; it also freed up women’s time for other necessary activities.
CTI has partnered with a Senegalese firm to produce the equipment locally. That company helped further improve the design, and local production reduced the price and created jobs. CTI is now working in 150 villages in Senegal.
The fourth component, the standalone grinder, turned out to be a great way for women’s groups to generate income. But Alexandra Spieldoch, executive director of CTI, pointed out an important nutrition and health aspect. “One organization in Malawi purchased a grinder to produce peanut butter that enabled HIV AIDS patients to ‘keep down’ their medicine,” she recounted. Patients regained their lives, and a market was created by selling surplus packaged peanut butter in the market. That income then allowed women to send their children to school. CTI is also exploring how to help farmers supply school feeding programs with nutritious crops such as groundnuts (peanuts).
Improving Groundnut Production in Malawi
Groundnut production is tedious, difficult manual labor. To help the women in Malawi, CTI dug into the local market and found that three activities posed the biggest problems: lifting the nuts from the ground, stripping them from the plants, and shelling. That led to the development of three new tools, one for each of those tasks (Figure 2). The devices greatly facilitated the harvesting process.
CTI’s human-centered development approach yields valuable information in many ways. Like pulling nuts from the ground, other material surfaced during research and testing: women were wetting the nuts to facilitate shell removal. That aflatoxin nightmare has been significantly reduced with training to harvest the nuts sooner and utilize dry shelling.
CTI seeks to benefit a million farmers by 2025. That requires multisector partnerships, funding, infrastructure, local trust, and capacity-building. “The most difficult part,” claimed Spieldoch, “is distribution.” Like the PICS bags, CTI must scale up to reach the millions of smallholder farmers in remote areas to make the greatest impact. “We need to think of creative ways to get to them. That includes a competitive price point, local representation, and quality of our tools is really important,” she explained.
Biofortification Breeds Micronutrients
Even when there’s enough food, malnutrition can be a problem. The staple diet may contribute insufficient levels of certain nutrients due to limited food variety and other factors. Biofortification can address large scale vitamin and mineral deficiencies in specific populations.
The concept of biofortification was conceived in the 1990s, when economist Howarth (“Howdy”) Bouis began to think outside the seed envelope while working at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Instead of using food fortification to address “hidden hunger” in the developing world, why not grow crops with nature-installed vitamins and minerals?
Plant breeders didn’t buy into the idea at first. The research would require significant funding, yields might be lower, and farmers probably wouldn’t care about the enhanced nutrition. Undeterred, Bouis had a more promising conversation with Ross Welch, a plant physiologist at Cornell’s Plant, Soil, and Nutrition Laboratory. He learned that if minerals could be bred into the seedlings, yields would actually improve through mineral enrichment of the soil, and seeding rates could be lowered. Farmers should embrace these agricultural gains, and consumers would benefit from better nutrition.
It took years to raise funding, but in 2003 the HarvestPlus program was formed to study and implement biofortification, a term coined in 2001 by Steve Beebe, a researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). HarvestPlus is a joint venture between that organization and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). IFPRI is a research center of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
Biofortification recently gained additional recognition when Bouis, along with three scientists from the International Potato Center (CIP, also a CGIAR research center), won the 2016 World Food Prize for their pioneering work in combating micronutrient deficiency in the developing world. Now, HarvestPlus has a goal of reaching a billion people with biofortified crops by 2030.
The most critical nutritional deficiencies in developing countries are iron, zinc, and vitamin A. Thus, HarvestPlus focuses on increasing those nutrients in cassava, sweet potatoes, maize, pearl millet, beans, wheat, and rice. How do they do it?
HarvestPlus utilizes conventional breeding practices rather than transgenic modification (GM) to increase the amount of micronutrients in crops. GM can produce the desired traits much faster in the lab, as it’s not necessary to wait through several crop cycles that can take 6–9 months each. Also, traits can be bred in if they’re not naturally found in the crop, as is the case with golden rice.
But there are significant regulatory and consumer acceptance hurdles to GM of crops, especially when working across many countries. That can slow implementation way down, or slam on the brakes. Conventional breeding, on the other hand, can take up to 10 years to get the right seed, according to Vidushi Sinha, senior communications specialist at HarvestPlus. The desired traits (like nutrient levels and high yields) must be found naturally in the target plants so that they can be optimized through selective breeding. Meike Andersson, crop development specialist at HarvestPlus, provided an example: “In Asia, the rice and wheat varieties are too low in iron for conventional breeding, so those products are bred for higher zinc levels.” Despite the longer breeding time, the conventional path is still the shorter route to the fields: developed seeds are simply released to the market.
To get to the ideal seed, nutritionists must first establish target levels of micronutrients for specific populations by analyzing the bioavailability of ingested nutrients, storage and processing losses, health requirements, nutrition status for each country and age group, and potential consumption levels. The data provide crop scientists with a target.
The new micronutrient-dense seed lines are then tested in experimental stations and farmers’ fields. The plants are evaluated for yield, pest and disease resistance, climate and soil tolerance, and local agronomic management practices such as fertilization and irrigation. The best-performing seeds are then multiplied.
The Last Mile: Distribution
As with the PICS bags and CTI equipment, distribution is the gargantuan challenge. HarvestPlus works with governments and numerous organizations to enable access to farmers. A sustainable market must be developed in each country.
Governments are provided with a “basket” of seed options to account for different growing conditions in each country and regional consumer preferences. Andersson cited the example of “Rwanda [which] was given 10 types of beans” to minimize single-variety crop risks and to cater to local tastes. Neighboring countries with similar climate conditions are then approached with the same products, allowing HarvestPlus to easily leverage new developments. Good news travels fast, spreading to countries where HarvestPlus doesn’t have a presence but is happy to accommodate the demand.
If We Grow It, Will They Come?
The seed must first be accepted by farmers, and they need a reason to believe. If it increases yields, benefits the soil, is cost-effective and pest, disease, and climate tolerant, that’s a powerful incentive. Then there must be a market for the crops: consumers have to want the healthy horticulture. HarvestPlus carries out extensive education for both consumers and farmers using test plot demonstrations, schools, clinics, ads, events, and entertainment to communicate the benefits and stimulate trial.
While zinc- and iron-enhanced crops don’t materially affect sensory qualities, HarvestPlus was unsure about the acceptance of orange-colored potatoes, cassava, and maize. Andersson explained that “In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa where white maize was typically consumed, yellow corn supplied via U.S. food aid during famine carried a negative association.” In Zambia, though, that sentiment didn’t carry over to the orange variety. In fact, it was much preferred. According to Ekin Birol, head of impact research at HarvestPlus, “97% of [farmers] wanted to grow orange maize the following season [requesting] on average, four times more seed.” Consumers liked the bright color even if they did not understand the nutrition. Andersson added, “Mothers reported that the orange potatoes and maize made a good weaning food, as children preferred the sweet taste.”
In Nigeria, red palm oil is typically added to white cassava recipes, so the yellow color was a non-problem and often commanded a price premium. Sometimes the acceptance of new foods is easier done than said.
It Takes a Village to Help a Village
In some ways, product development for developing countries is much the same as anywhere else. It takes a multidisciplinary team to make it happen. Products must be co-designed with users and an understanding of local customs and markets is critical. In developing countries, the learning curve can be steep, and implementation difficult.
Yet the little things and the simplest solutions can have cascading benefits that reach into areas such as livelihoods and health. Spieldoch of CTI summed it up: “It’s an example of the multilayered approach; the technology is a catalyst for these various impacts.” Enabling people around the world to eat properly and earn decent incomes is more than sustenance; it’s a global moveable feast.
Donna Rosa, a professional member of IFT, is a Carlstadt, N.J.-based consultant who works in developing countries providing business support for small food companies and agribusinesses ([email protected]).
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