How will Africa resolve crop losses?

I was in Malawi for their National Agricultural Fair during the week of the 14th of August, and my conversations with private sector, research scientists and non-governmental organizations gave me a fuller appreciation of the typical challenges in Africa. The two biggest problems facing the African continent thus far have been the extraordinarily low yields and the exorbitant levels of post-harvest losses. Usually, these two issues are addressed as separate conversations. However, while that is conceptually acceptable, both issues ought to be discussed simultaneously in practice – at least from a policy perspective. The reason why it is important to make low yields and high pre- and post-harvest losses part of a single collective discussion is because addressing one and not the other will likely lead to an insignificant outcome. If farmers produce more but neither have the mechanism nor the infrastructure to store their crop, they will still lose their commodities and remain food insecure. So the continent has a twin-problem that will require, at the very least, a two-pronged solution. How bad is the situation in Africa?

From a yield perspective, sub-Saharan Africa is anchored at the bottom of the trend – with average maize yields that are as low as 0.5 tons/ha and as high as 2.8 tons/ha for the continent’s better performers. The average for sub-Saharan Africa is less than 1.9 tons/ha. South African maize yields are of course, an exception, averaging 4.2 tons/ha. However, in other progressive parts of the world, average maize yields are in double digit territory. The United States for instance, averages 10 tons/ha to 11tons/ha. What this means is that sub-Saharan Africa needs to quadruple its maize yields to be able to catch up with the rest of the world.

On the face of it, the statistics above speak to smallholder farmers’ lack of access to high-yielding maize varieties. Ironically, sub-Saharan Africa has been producing numerous higher-yielding maize seed varieties, so the problem of access has little to do with the availability of seed technology. Rather, it has more to do with the poorly developed maize seed supply chains, which often fail to ensure that such seed is made available at the right place and the right time to farmers. The inconsistency of supply means that smallholder farmers find their recycled maize seed to be a more reliable source of seed. How do we fix this? Dr Ed Mabaya has noted that the problem within the seed supply chain has a lot to do with marketing aspects of it. In many instance, smallholder farmers neither know these higher yielding varieties nor are they made aware of the seed’s potential to improve output. So addressing the logistics and marketing of seed can play a critical role in helping to quadruple maize yields.

From a pre- and post-harvest loss point of view, it is estimated that smallholder farmers lose anything between 15% and 30% of their grain production. This is due to a number of reasons which include poor timing of harvesting, inappropriate harvesting practices, adverse weather conditions after physiological maturity of the crop, the crop’s exposure to invasive pests and wild animals, and losses due to poor storage infrastructure.

However, stand-out factors are pest infestations and moisture induced rotting and aflotoxin accumulation – which have become the focus of attention with serious impacts of the False Army Worm (FAW) in the former and human health concerns in the latter.

If we take 15% as the benchmark for food losses, then overall, pre-harvest losses account for 6% out of the 15%, while storage accounts for 6% to 8%. The balance is due to losses during threshing, shelling, drying and transportation – all of which are inevitable in any given production system. The two biggest issues, from a pre- and post-harvest loss perspective, is therefore centered around the actual harvesting practices and storage. Previous estimates reveal that pre- and post-harvest losses in sub-Saharan Africa translate to US$4 billion per year. So how can this be averted? Two conflicting schools of thought argue that pre- and post-harvest aspects should not receive similar levels of attention due to differences in relative importance. Some argue that more attention should go toward addressing pre-harvest practices that lead to mycotoxin infestation because there is sufficient storage to handle existing output. Others argue that storage remains critical and should therefore continue to be expanded in addition to on-going efforts to pre-harvest issues. However, data already shows that pre- and post-harvest losses are almost evenly split in terms of their contribution to overall losses. Therefore, it is critical to address both at the same time. Moreover, there is no evidence so far to show that existing private and public storage is sufficient for the market size in the region.

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