Proudly showing off produce in rural Kenya. A farmer's life in Africa is not always so happy. (Photo/ Flickr/ CIAT)

An African Scandal: Wasted Harvests And Hungry Farmers. But Small Fixes Are Can Turn It Around

AGRICULTURE is often called the backbone of many African economies, but perhaps might be more accurately described, in the words of Kofi Annan, as the “Achilles heel of Africa’s development story.”

Accounting for three-quarters or more of employment in countries such as Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda, its contribution to GDP continues to fall, overtaken by service industry.

But the stark reality is that a life of subsistence farming fails to provide sufficient food on the table of the continent’s farmers, let alone guarantee reasonable income levels for those who practice it.

TRAPPED

Low productivity of smallholder farmers is often blamed for trapping millions of farmers in poverty and hunger. Cereal yields in Africa are typically in the region of 1-1.5 tonnes per hectare, in comparison to 3 or 4 tonnes elsewhere.

It means that a continent that is home 15% to the world’s population accounts for more than 33% of those affected by hunger globally.

But data from the Africa Progress Panel suggests that smallholder farmers are not necessarily any less productive than large commercial farms.

Recent research on maize in selected countries reveals smallholder production of maize matches productivity on large farms.

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In the study’s analysis, neither smallholder nor large-scale commercial agriculture has flourished in Africa. There is a brake that undermines the success of both.

That brake is the astonishing level of food that goes to waste after harvest. Poor post-harvest storage and quality management are responsible for 40% of the cost in value chains, according to the Africa Progress Panel report.

GOES TO WASTE

Translated into financial terms, food staples valued at over $4 billion are lost every year in Africa as a result of post-harvest inefficiencies, much of it due to poor storage. Losses on cereals account for about 25% of the total crop harvested; it is even higher for fruits, vegetables and root crops, of which 50% goes to waste.

The Last Hunger Season, a 2013 non-fiction book on four peasant farmers in western Kenya by journalist Roger Thurow, describes the cascade of knife-edge decisions that smallholder farmers have to make every season, and why it often ends in hunger and poverty for many.

In the book, maize farmer Leonida Wanyama harvests her crop in late November, but doesn’t have any modern storage for her crop and so is forced to store it in her house, where it risks aflatoxin contamination, but at least it is safe from thieves.

Last Harvest

Her son’s secondary school fees is due in January when the new term begins, but maize prices are still quite low because the market is still flush with produce.

Leonida doesn’t want to sell the whole crop right after the harvest partly because prices are low, and also because she needs the grain – it could serve as her family’s main source of food for the coming months.

But she needs the school fees in January to secure her son’s place in school, and she can’t keep the maize long anyway because it may get aflatoxin and become unfit for consumption.

She thus makes the gamble and sells most of the crop. But in three months, when she has run out of her stock, and has to buy maize to feed her family, its market price is three times as high.

PERVERSE CYCLE

It’s a perverse cycle – the maize farmers end up being net buyers of maize at prices double or triple of that which they sold their crop.

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Leonida’s young daughter actually depends on a school feeding programme for her daily meals; food at home is that scarce for most of the year.

The solution for this is as simple as a warehouse receipt system, which would allow her to store the grain in a modern facility and get credit against it.

That way, she would get money upfront to pay the school fees in January, and then her grain would hit the market in April or May, when prices are twice as high than they would be just after harvest.

Several African countries including Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda are trying out versions of warehouse receipting systems, to mixed success.

Some of the big problems of rural poverty and grinding hunger could be solved with small logistical fixes like this – warehousing, cold storage and access to markets that can limit post harvest losses, provide access to finance and help farmer access better prices.

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