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A Lot to Lose, But Much to Gain

June 06, 2014

Currently, Africa is still spending around $40 billion of scarce foreign exchange on food imports. Until Africa’s industrialization process takes hold, growth in Africa will be propelled by smallholder farmers who must produce more food more sustainably to feed themselves, their families and communities.

Until my recent visit to Uganda, I would have guessed that most agricultural research efforts to  to produce more food would seek to improve yields. Yet I discovered another strategy that can be just as effective in reducing hunger and boosting incomes: reducing post-harvest loss.

Out of the eight MSc and PhD students from Makerere University that presented their current research, every single one of them was trying to improve resistance to some of the most damaging pests and diseases to African agriculture: blight to common bean, rosette virus that cripples groundnuts (peanuts), gall midge (maggots) that wither and stunt sesame, and brown spot disease that kills upland rice. 

We saw the effects that these devastating diseases can have on crops across the Ugandan-Kenyan border near Bungoma. Smallholder farmers who work with NGO One Acre Fund are struggling with maize lethal necrosis disease (MLND), a combination of two viruses that results in premature plant death, male plant sterility, malformed or no ears and rotting cob.  It can destroy an entire crop.

This is completely devastating to a farmer living on one acre or less. While no “cure” exists, halting the spread of the disease is possible by eradicating the pests that carry it, using better hygiene so humans don’t spread it while walking through fields, and taking some time off from growing maize. To cope, One Acre Fund was providing its farmers in Bungoma with alternative seed packages for millet and sorghum.

Fumona, a single mother and grandmother with one acre of land, planted a quarter-acre of finger millet last year due to the disease attacking maize, along with a smaller plot of maize, beans and groundnuts. Her millet did extraordinarily well. She produced 7 bags of finger millet that gave her enough to feed her family and have extra to sell. Funoma told us that as she has plenty of millet, she hasn’t had to buy extra food; she could feed her children on millet porridge and use the income from selling her surplus to pay back her loan to One Acre Fund amongst other necessities.

It’s not only diseases that stop crops getting from the field to the fork, but also the incredible rate that crops will rot if not stored effectively. Cassava, for example, can take two years to grow, but will spoil after only two days out of the ground.

That’s where warehousing enterprises like Agro-Ways (U) come in. For a small fee, Agro-Ways (U) will collect, clean, grade and store maize for smallholders.

Financed by AGRA and the Ugandan Development Trust, Agro-Ways (U) doesn’t buy grain from farmers, but facilitates connections with buyers such as the World Food Programme.

The farmers form Village Aggregation Centres (VACs) to produce 5 metric tonnes of maize – the minimum amount required for pick-up by Agro-Ways. This might seem like a tall order, but in return, AgroWays (U) commits to picking the grain up from the VACs and delivering the maize to its warehouse in Jinga within 2 days. This tight time frame ensures that the maize is spared from mould and the fungus afla-toxin, which immediately renders the grain unfit for sale.

Herbert Kyeyamwa, Managing Director of Agro-Ways (U) estimates that farmers are able to preserve 40% more of their crop by using his services – a fairly large return on investment - arguably comparable to most perceptible yield gains under good conditions with improved seed. The income gains are nothing to balk at either: farmers earn 20-30 percent more for their grain if it passes through the warehouse system.

Economic growth in Africa is going to depend on its food security, for now. Africa’s food security is going to depend on:

  • growing more food on the same amount of land or less with the same amount of water or less;
  • saving the tons of food produced that falls victim to disease and rot; and
  • making sure farmers have better seed, appropriate fertilizer and fall-back plans when the weather is bad.

With so many ways that the prevention of post-harvest loss can add to the radical difference that raising yields can make to a farmers’ level of food production and consequently their income, perhaps it’s time we look at what African farmers have to gain, by paying more attention to what they must not lose.

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