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Can agtech solve post-harvest losses in Africa?

Food loss and waste remains a serious environmental and economic issue across the food supply chain. According to the World Food Programme, more than one-third of food produced globally is lost or wasted. This results in an estimated $1 trillion loss per year. In Africa, this figure is roughly 37% of all produce, or the equivalent of 120-170 kg/year per capita.

In Africa’s most food-insecure regions, more than 40% of this loss occurs through post-harvest losses – losses that occur between the point of harvesting and the point of consumption. In response to these figures and a growing concern over regional food security, member states of the African Union have pledged to halve postharvest food losses by 2025.

Post-harvest losses

Most food security experts agree that post-harvest losses in Africa have significant nutritional, health, and financial impacts for both consumers and farmers. Furthermore, these issues disproportionately affect African women, who are primarily responsible for managing post-harvest drying, cleaning, and storage in these regions. For rural families, many of whom already live on the edge of hunger, lost food means increased vulnerability to food scarcity and a direct loss of income, exacerbating an already precarious economic situation.

According to the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), Africa is losing approximately 100 million metric tons of food every year worth an estimated $4 billion. The lost food could potentially meet the needs of about 44 million people annually. Lost food also deprives farmers of the opportunity to grow and strengthen their businesses. With smallholder farmers regularly losing 40% of their harvest due to inadequate storage, many choose to sell their produce immediately after harvest. They sell at a time when prices are low due to the high volume supply – only to buy back the same produce later for their own consumption at a higher cost.

What are the challenges for countries in reducing post-harvest losses?

In Africa, post-harvest losses are mainly caused by poor harvesting methods, inefficient storage facilities, transportation problems, and lack of market access for smallholders. Another major obstacle is a lack of logistical infrastructure such as road and railway networks. The magnitude of post-harvest loss varies significantly depending on geographic location, climate, and the prevalence of pests. Moreover, the severity of post-harvest losses varies at different stages of the supply chain, limiting the potential of a single unified approach to the issue. Solving this remains a major headache for many development and funding agencies.

Can agtech reduce post-harvest losses?

According to experts, access to simple affordable technology can significantly reduce post-harvest loss in Africa and play a role in meeting the needs of the food and beverage supply chain. However, many smallholders in developing regions lack the necessary capital to invest in agtech solutions. Additionally, long-term mitigation options and policies to reduce post-harvest loss are also hindered by limited access to reliable data and a lack of standardized methods for estimating the quantity and economic impact of post-harvest losses.

One Ghanaian study that looked at improved storage methods, as well as the use of grain protectants showed that by disseminating appropriate technologies to farmers, losses were reduced to 3.1% from 36.7% for maize and 6.4% from 77.8% for cowpea during a 12-month period. Although the improved storage methods incurred high variable costs, all the treatments produced a positive net benefit.

In another study, the Rockefeller Foundation identified 12 technologies that can cost-effectively reduce food waste, with examples including hermetic bags, heavy moulded-plastic containers, and mobile processing units. These innovations have a small unit cost and are suitable for individual use. They can also be easily scaled up to meet growing demand. More complex solutions such as cold storage systems can be an effective option for large-scale producers or multiple users but are inherently more costly.

The deployment of digital technologies offer a practical way to tackle post-harvest losses in the grain sector. Startups like TeleSense have played a pioneering role by securing substantial investment to develop IoT sensors and apps that monitor grain storage conditions. At the grain-harvesting stage, technologies such as mechanical reapers may be more effective at reducing post-harvest losses, while at the grain-drying stage, mechanical drying may have the highest impact.

Continuous monitoring through digital technologies also helps prevent spoilage and insect infestation by sending real-time alerts to farmers, which enhances grain storage, shipping, and merchandising. While access to digital communication tools like smartphones, television, and radio play a crucial role in providing smallholder farmers with timely market information. This access facilitates informed decision-making, enabling farmers to align crop sales with market demand and secure better prices.

Large tech companies, such as Ag Growth International (AGI), are investing in IoT applications to monitor conditions within grain silos, allowing better preservation of grain quality through optimal temperature and humidity control. These technological advances also provide the added benefit of giving food-processing and brewing corporations more command over their supply chains by maintaining grain quality.

Agtech initiatives are also focusing on improving market access. For instance, AgroCenta, a Ghanaian agtech startup, leverages digital technology to connect smallholder farmers to markets, offering live market data and logistical support, including access to vehicles for transportation. This not only ensures fair market access for local producers but also tackles post-harvest loss by facilitating the efficient distribution of goods.

Despite these advances, there is still an urgent call for national and regional bodies to formulate and implement policies that support technology-driven interventions. Such policies would bolster the adoption of agtech solutions, allowing them to have a more profound impact on reducing food loss and waste and enhancing food security in Africa.

Providing modern and efficient solutions

Reducing food loss and waste is key to long term societal, environmental, and operational progress. Solving this challenge requires industry-wide collaboration between farmers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers, as well as effective policy interventions.

At Farrelly Mitchell, our food and agribusiness experts support stakeholders across the food supply chain providing a range of services including supply chain optimisation, agtech implementationESG auditing, and risk analysis. Our team has a deep understanding of the food loss challenge, and an unwavering commitment to solving it. We work with governments, multilaterals, and NGO’s to build capacity, develop programs, evaluate impacts, and design policy. Contact us today to discover how our team can assist you in creating sustainable, efficient, and impactful solutions.

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Author

sean@initiate.ie

Regional Director (West Africa)
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