Seven years have passed since FAO estimated that about one third of the food produced worldwide is either lost or wasted. Surprisingly huge amounts of food are lost even in the poorest countries, the very same which have the highest numbers of hungry or malnourished people. Most of these countries are affected by high levels of post-harvest losses caused by inappropriate handling of the produce after harvest.
For example Rwanda: like many other sub-Saharan African countries, agriculture is the leading economic activity in this densely populated nation, with more than 70 per cent of the workforce employed in the agricultural sector. Most of the produce is handled by smallholder farmers in their own homes through rudimentary post-harvest practices, often leading to low quality produce and high post-harvest losses.
Climate change is a big part of the problem. Due to shifting climatic patterns, maize harvesting currently happens during the peak of the rainy season. Most farmers do not have access to adequate drying facilities and cannot dry their produce to acceptable moisture levels before storing it, leading to pest infestation, mold and contamination. The result: large quantities of their maize is either inedible or unsalable.
The problem is a real one and there is data to prove it. According to the Africa Post-Harvest Loss Information System (APHLIS), the leading source on post-harvest wastage in Africa, losses in the Rwanda maize supply chain could be as high as 22 per cent. The figure is also alarmingly high for other crops in other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with an average grain loss estimated at 13.5 per cent continent-wide.
Reducing such losses could constitute a more cost-effective answer to hunger than increasing productivity. If the figures published in a 2011 World Bank report paint an accurate portrait, eliminating grain losses in sub-Saharan Africa alone could provide the annual calorie requirement for around 48 million people. And this increase would not be detrimental to the environment, as it would require no extra resources (water, land and energy) to grow the food that would otherwise go wasted.
The problem is that it is difficult to isolate post-harvest losses from the issue of rural underdevelopment in general. That is because they are largely due to the lack of infrastructure and appropriate equipment that affects many developing economies. What is really needed is a complete overhaul of the rural sector and its value chains, and one that leaves no loss behind.
A growing number of projects supported by IFAD follow a holistic approach that aims to improve the overall efficiency of the value chain by upgrading the capacities of all actors involved. An internal desk review found that between 2013 and 2016 IFAD earmarked about US$433 million to post-harvest operations through such projects. The infrastructure, equipment and capacity developed thanks to this investment is essential to enable producers to reduce their losses.