by Tim Rendall, Jacob Ricker-Gilbert and Nyssa Lilovich, Purdue University, USA


Preventing food losses worldwide: An overview

Food security does not end at harvest. Despite advances in agricultural productivity, hunger, malnutrition and poverty remain stubbornly persistent in many developing countries. One contributing factor is that more than one-third of the food produced worldwide is lost or wasted after harvest.

The post-harvest value chain, which encompasses the crop from when it is harvested to when it is consumed, includes the stages of handling, drying, storing, transporting and processing. In Africa, two major factors cause significant food loss: poor post-harvest management leading to mould contamination and insect infestation during storage; and constraints in the food-processing sector leading to inefficient processing and substantial loss of quantity and quality of food. These losses result in limited market and economic opportunities for farmers. These losses can be mitigated by cost-effective on-farm drying and storage technologies, along with food-processing innovations, including nutritionally enhanced product development.

Only recently have post-harvest issues, including the link between agriculture and nutrition, gained greater attention in agricultural development programmes. In 2014, a United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-led initiative, Feed the Future, partnered with Purdue University to establish the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Processing and Post-Harvest Handling (FPIL). The project focusses on post-harvest solutions to develop sustainable, market-driven value chains that reduce food losses, improve food and nutrition security, and contribute to economic growth for smallholder farmers.

The FPIL addresses post-harvest challenges with cereals, including maize, sorghum, and millet in Sub-Saharan Africa. The following three activities implemented under the project demonstrate the positive impact that the FPIL project has had in addressing challenges in two core areas of the project: grain drying and storage, and food processing and nutrition.

Identifying low-cost methods for controlling aflatoxin in stored maize

FPIL researchers studied cost-effective ways to prevent or limit aflatoxin contamination of key crops for rural subsistence households in Sub-Saharan Africa. In collaboration with Institu Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles (ISRA), the premier agricultural research institution in Senegal, the research team set up a randomised intervention in the Department of Vélingara in southern Senegal. The team evaluated the effectiveness of five treatments to mitigate aflatoxin contamination in maize. The experimental treatments outlined in Table 1 included a mixture of training and low-cost technologies provided to the farmers. The technologies included: a hygrometer to verify moisture content (developed under FPIL at Purdue); plastic sheeting as an alternative to drying on bare ground; and the Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) bag as a means of preventing insect contamination and limiting any fungus growth in stored maize.

Researchers surveyed all households in each treatment group after a cropping season to determine which households implemented recommended practices and to test the aflatoxin levels in their stored maize.

The researchers found that only hermetic (airtight) storage bags caused a statistically significant reduction in total aflatoxin levels after three-to-four months of storage, reducing the likelihood that maize had total aflatoxin levels above safe-to-eat thresholds by 30 percent. The results provide practical guidance to lower aflatoxins in staple crops and suggest that strategies to reduce aflatoxins should address issues from harvest to storage comprehensively.

Product development: Instant Ugali

A partnership between the FPIL and the University of Eldoret in Kenya resulted in the establishment the of Food Processing Training and Incubation Centre. The centre is housed on the University of Eldoret's campus and is fitted with basic food processing equipment and a research laboratory. It provides a space for small scale processing, product research and development, and serves a training facility for local entrepreneurs.

Ugali, a type of porridge made from maize, millet or sorghum flour, is a common staple in Kenyan diets. Cooked in boiling water or milk until it becomes a stiff dough, the cereal requires both time and strength to prepare. As a result, some consumers opted for less nutritious but faster choices to feed their families.

Instant Ugali is a new food product created by the R&D efforts of the Food Processing Training and Incubation Centre. Instant Ugali uses extrusion technology to develop a one-minute version of the traditional dish. Compared to traditional ugali, the Instant Ugali is faster, more convenient, and provides enhanced nutrition. It has been certified for production by the country's national certifying body, the Kenya Bureau of Standards.

Entrepreneurial development: Madame Mbacke

Madame Astou Gaye Mbacke first partnered with the FPIL in 2016. This partnership has led to her business, the Touba Darou Salam Cereal Processing Unit, gaining a food extruder, thereby giving the facility the technical capacity to develop instant enriched flours. Today, her instant flours are sold through a network of over 1,000 Senegalese women. The instant flour business offers a source of income, empowerment and independence to women entrepreneurs who partner with Mbacke's processing unit.

In January 2020, FPIL researchers Dr Cheryl O'Brien of San Diego State University and Laura Leavens, graduate student at Purdue University, travelled to Senegal to evaluate the impact of the Touba Darou Salam Cereal Processing Unit on incomes and empowerment of the entrepreneurs. In the study, 98 percent of women survey reported their household incomes increasing as a result of partnering with Mbacke. The FPIL team found the average female retailer sells 50kg of instant flours during a typical sales month, earning the equivalent of half the monthly household income of a typical Senegalese household.

Additionally, the participants also reported that instant flour sales increase their household's ability to improve their dietary diversity, invest in their children's education, and several other key elements.

Mbacke's business continues to grow these women's associations. Soon after the extrusion technology was started in Touba, Senegal, government officials expressed interest in the FPIL project. Madame Mbacke has received contracts from the federal office that leads malnutrition programmes to supply instant fortified millet flours mixed with mango, baobab, or other local fruits for nutrition initiatives in the country. These fortified blends provide essential vitamins and minerals to address malnutrition shortfalls present in the Sengalese population. FPIL will continue to support Madame Mbacke and other local entrepreneurs in their efforts to produce high-quality, nutritious, market-competitive products.

Sustainability and scale

FPIL's first phase contributed to strengthening institutional and human capacities. This training and capacity development is vital to the long-term sustainability of local systems. FPIL fully or partially-funded 27 graduate students for long-term training; 27 project collaborators for short-term training; 13,040 farmers, traders, agricultural extension agents and technicians for training on proper drying and storage practices/technologies; and 271 entrepreneurs, food processors, students and youth for training on processing methods, natural fortification and entrepreneurship.

Early indicators show that introducing smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to affordable drying, moisture testing and storage technologies can increase the availability of high-quality grains and legumes for commodity markets and value-added processing. FPIL's efforts in food processing and nutrition increase and diversify food processing products and develop markets for cereal and legume products in both rural and urban areas. The goal is to create a sustainable market-driven model for affordable nutritionally enhanced foods.

The result is better market opportunities for farmers and improved quality, safety and nutritional options for consumers.

The models can be scaled up with modifications to other Feed the Future countries. Scaling technologies to create sustainable post-harvest value chains that promote resiliency among target populations is a focus in FPIL's second phase. This will involve training more farmers and traders on best practices and cost-effective technologies for harvesting, drying and storing crops; working with the private sector to establish supply chains for technologies; and researching effectiveness of new innovative technologies.

The FPIL will continue to drive the value-chain through food processing, which will help to improve nutrition and increase commercialisation in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is necessary to increase the availability and market share for safe, high-quality cereal and legume-based products in rural and urban markets. The team continues to work to develop nutrient-enhanced products using sustainable local commodities to increase access to micronutrient rich foods for at risk populations. A core effort of this work is to establish innovative platforms for the delivery of innovative food products into local markets creating improved market availability and accessibility of nutritious, affordable foods.

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Processing and Post-Harvest Handling plans to have many more success stories to tell.

This article was made possible through support provided by Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Processing and Postharvest Handling through the US Agency for International Development, under the terms of Contract No. AID-OAA-L-14-00003. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Agency for International Development.

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