For decades, Africa has been struggling without success to match food supplies with its booming population growth.
Despite the enormous potential of farming in each of the continent’s 53 countries, the myriad of challenges bedevilling the agriculture sector –from land tilling to food processing and packaging – means that not much can be done to properly exploit the land to the benefit of the people.
One such challenge is post-harvest losses (PHL).
Cost of PHL
Every year, the continent loses about 37 per cent of its total food produce after they have been harvested – between the point of harvesting and consumption.
This means that of every 100 tons of food produced, about 37 tons is lost as a result of loss in value, destructions by rodents and pests, bad road network between farms and urban centres, poor weather conditions and inadequate storage facilities, among other challenges.
In monetary terms, PHL cost the continent a minimum of $4 billion every year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN). In Ghana, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research puts the loss at $400 million per annum.
While these estimates are considered to be conservative by some experts (PHL is up to 50 per cent in perishable goods) or exaggerated by others, the cost of the losses is still huge. In the African sense, the loss is enough to feed about 48 million mouths in a region where some 233 million people are said to be hungry.
This is the bitter reality experts in agriculture, policymakers and governments across the globe and the continent in particular have been grappling with for years.
Eliminating PHL or reducing it to the barest minimum is, therefore, key as it could help save some 48 million Africans from hunger.
It could also help to increase the rate of return on agricultural implements and investments such as the cost of procuring and using land, fertiliser, transport facilities, seeds and labour.
With Africa’s agriculture sector currently being the least fanciful place to lend to, due mainly to the high risk of default, raising returns on investments to appreciable levels would inspire lenders to revise their notes.
That could mean increased food production in the midst of rising concerns over food insecurity.
Getting concrete data
Conscious of these implications, many institutions have, over the years, come out with various initiatives aimed at addressing the challenges of PHL by, first, creating awareness of its magnitude and impact on food security and then finding mitigating measures to the problem.
One such initiative is the African Post-harvest Losses Information System (APHLIS), which tackles the problem from a different angle – using scientific models to estimate the magnitude of PHL in Africa.
Initiated in 2010 by the Natural Resources Institute (NRI), the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and the Information Systems for International Cooperation in Agricultural Research and Rural Development (ISICAD), APHLIS is a scientific model that produces calculated estimates of losses of food crops across sub-Saharan Africa.
The introduction of APHLIS was born out of the understanding that effectively tackling the challenges of PHL required that decision makers knew where to focus their efforts to achieve the largest gains.
To do this, data on losses must be estimated scientifically, rather than merely approximated, and available publicly to help give a clearer picture to the problem.
As a result, the system has, since its inception, combined scientific data from literature on PHL with local factors from a network of over 35 African post-harvest experts to generate localised estimates of losses.
These local factors vary but include weather conditions, pests, grain drying conditions and the length of farm storage periods.
Dr Bruno Tran of NRI, who leads the team of experts working on APHLIS, explained that the combined information is then fed through an algorithm that produces percentages of loss at each link of the value chain.
“All data is freely available on the APHLIS website, primarily as maps, where users can zoom in to details at a regional level, download the information as tables or pinpoint the specific scientific papers that were used to calculate the estimates,” he explained.
After chalking up some successes, APHLIS is now upgrading its services under a new project, APHLIS+, which seeks to build on the solid foundation of the former.
APHLIS+ is a five-year initiative that seeks to improve the accuracy of estimation models, adds estimates of financial value and nutritional losses, providing interactive tools to access the data and underlying models, while remaining fully open to access and adding an application programming interface (API) for third party tools to access its data.
“The original APHLIS model concentrated on cereals. APHLIS+ will increase the crop varieties covered to include pulses, roots, tubers, bananas and plantains,” Dr Tran said.
To help introduce APHLIS+ to the world and formally set it in motion, a launch event is scheduled for Accra on September 7.
The meeting, part of a longer meeting of the APHLIS network of experts, will bring together experts from over 30 sub-Saharan African countries, including representatives from the country’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA).
Already, the expected attendees provide field-level data to the APHLIS system and write reports on post-harvest losses in their respective countries.
Beyond launching APHLIS+, the meeting at the Sunlodge Hotel in Accra will serve as opportune time for the experts to exchange experiences, refresh the use of APHLIS systems, and explore the new data that needs to be collected for the APHLIS+ expansion.
Those to participate are drawn from about 24 institutions with interest in agriculture and food security. They include the Adventist Relief Agency (ADRA), Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Catholic Relief Services, Crop Research Institute (CSIR), World Food Programme and the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA).
After the meeting, the organisers anticipate that participants will be inspired to continue to work hard towards reducing PHL, a challenge that threatens Africa’s strive towards food security.