Farmers, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, lose more than 30 percent of their crops every year. The losses are due to insects, pests, moulds, and moisture. The effects of these losses, after harvest are devastating to families because it means less food is available. Subsequently nutrition and health suffer also affecting a family’s finances.
Post-harvest food loss is one of the largest contributing factors to food insecurity and under-nutrition. It occurs all over the world, but much of it takes place in Sub-Saharan Africa, directly impacting the lives of millions of poor, smallholder farming families every year. According to a study by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2019 for instance, an estimated 30% – 50% of the annual grain and fresh fruits and vegetables harvest (in terms of weight) is lost. Although African agriculture holds great potential, it is not functioning at optimal efficiency, due to predominantly inadequate handling and storage practices at the household level.
But evidence of this havoc is right here at home.
A 2014 baseline survey on rice farming in four eastern districts of Mbale, Butaleja, Bugiri and Iganga show that farmers rely on poor techniques of threshing, storing, packaging, and transporting rice. A similar survey conducted on maize farmers in Kasese, Kibaale, Hoima and Masindi show that farmers rely on outdated practices involving shelling, drying, storing, packaging and transportation of maize.
The average Ugandan farmer loses about 30% of their maize or rice output due to poor post-handling practices. Post-harvest Handling Practices and Losses for Legumes and Starchy Staples in Uganda published in 2018 show predominance of rudimentary and inappropriate postharvest handling methods.
Postharvest loss is generally high, with values of 41%, 33%, 33%, 26%, 31%, 22%, 17% and 19% for maize, millet, sorghum, beans, groundnuts, cowpea, sweet potatoes, and cassava respectively. The highest loss for all the crops was recorded at storage.
Poor post-harvest handling causes quality and hence health concerns as indicated by the high prevalence of aflatoxin. Studies by Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA) in 2017 revealed that Uganda’s maize, sorghum, and groundnuts contained aflatoxin levels exceeding the national maximum limit. As a result, Uganda’s food products are considered unsafe for human consumption, a factor that explains the low competitiveness of Uganda’s food products and the surge of foodborne illnesses. In 2016 alone, Uganda’s Ministry of Health report shows that about 1.3 million people, constituting 14% of treated cases, were diagnosed with food-borne diseases. A recent example is the ban on Uganda’s maize starting March 2021 by Kenya due to the high levels of aflatoxins.
The ban resulted into a decline in maize exports from 94,382 MT in January-March 2021 quarter to 2,765 MT by close of 2021, representing a 97.1 percent reduction. Kenya being the destination for 90% of Uganda’s maize export, such a ban cost Uganda about $121m (UGX 447b) in annual revenue. In addition, the effects of such a ban trickle down to the smallholder producers as it affects demand and hence prices for their commodities leading to loss of household income.
Improving food storage systems is critical for both economic well-being as well as for ensuring food security and nutrition. Most agricultural assistance models focus primarily on increasing access to inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and equipment to raise yields, not putting much emphasis on post-harvest losses.
Uganda Development Bank (UDB) through its targeted interventions in agricultural sector, is focusing on the causes of low productivity and post-harvest losses that characterise Uganda’s agricultural production. The Bank provides both financial and non-financial services to farmers involved in commercial agriculture on small, medium, and large scale.
UDB’s intervention in agriculture sector has seen the average post-harvest losses reduce from 15% to 11% between 2020 and 2021 (source; DI ex-post data 2021), this is particularly for agricultural enterprises supported by the bank. This has been achieved through financing of storage facilities like silos, milk coolers and Agro-processing machinery coupled with Advisory services to farmers.
Looking forward, UDB aims to reduce post-harvest losses among farmers crops and livestock to less than 5% throughout the agriculture value chains right from the farm to market.
Ronald Wandera is a Monitoring and Evaluation Assistant at Uganda Development Bank Ltd (UDB).
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