From India to Africa: a Quest to reduce food loss

Feeding the world

Giles Goodhead

06 January 2016

In 2014 Leaders’ Quest, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, led a Quest to India exploring the challenges and opportunities of reducing food loss. Here Giles Goodhead of LQ and C.D. Glin of Rockefeller reflect on key takeaways and insights from the program.

As the global development community grapples with the challenge of feeding 9 billion people by 2050, the need for an integrated approach to agriculture development becomes more apparent. Food loss is a global problem; the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that up to a third of food grown in developing countries is lost before it reaches consumers. Efforts to increase crop yields should go hand-in-hand with a focus on saving more of the crops already being produced. Reasons for food loss vary, but they include:

  1. Fragmentation amongst smallholders, which limits economies of scale and, in some cases, hinders proper market linkages.
  2. Limited knowledge of post-harvest management and technology.
  3. Lack of access to proper storage facilities, technologies, and equipment.
  4. Lack of access to competitive markets and market information.
  5. Limited access to affordable finance.
  6. Unfavourable government policies.

Practitioners, policymakers and funders have the opportunity to address some of these key challenges, and to enhance existing best practices in food loss reduction. India’s agricultural development sector offers valuable lessons to other developing countries. They are especially pertinent in Africa, where small land-holders and others are most affected by poverty and food insecurity.

According to the World Bank, in India and across Africa, more than 60% of the population relies on agriculture for their livelihood. Yet over the past 50 years, millions of Indians have been lifted out of poverty through government innovation in agricultural products, processes, and services.

Supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, Leaders’ Quest recently convened a multi-sector group of predominantly Africa-focused food and agriculture experts and stakeholders. They gathered for a learning journey to India, to explore food issues and solutions and find out more about the country’s success.

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Participants included:

  • International development practitioners from Technoserve, Africare and One Acre Fund.
  • Financial, technology and agriculture investors from Barclays, SAP and the MasterCard Foundation.
  • Representatives of food and agriculture companies such as Cargill, Olam, and Agco.
  • Academics and researchers from the University of Greenwich, Purdue University and Kansas State.
  • Leaders of agriculture and farmer-focused institutions such as World Vegetable Center, the East African Farmers Association and FairTrade Africa.

Here are some of the key takeaways and insights from the journey:

Many innovative food loss reduction technologies already exist. For instance, Science for Society India has designed business models and low-cost innovations including a moveable solar grain drier that can reduce harvest drying times to just one day. There are no operating costs, and its mobility allows sharing between farms. It’s also low maintenance and can be built locally. Another example is Amity University’s Center for Post-Harvest Technology, which has designed Zero Energy Cooling Chambers (ZECCs): double-walled brick boxes that use off-grid evaporative cooling to increase the shelf-life of produce from a day to six days or more.

Simplicity matters for culture and sustainability. Farmers around the world desire simple solutions with clear benefits. For example, hermetic storage bags – triple-layered storage bags that protect grains from infestation – have successfully reduced food loss in parts of India. Their use requires little training, and farmers quickly see the economic benefit of storing grain at home and waiting until it can be sold for the highest possible price. Innovations must also fit into, or be adapted to, a community’s existing culture to ensure effective adoption.

Mobile reaches millions. Deficient extension services in India’s agricultural sector contribute to a lack of information delivered to farmers. This results in food loss and other negative outcomes. A venture promoted and supported by Thomson Reuters – Reuters Market Light (RML) – provides highly localized and customized agricultural and market information directly to farmers. Through a subscription model, RML communicates via mobile text message to 1.4 million farmers across 50,000 villages. Its text alerts cover localised weather forecasts, crop advice, local market data and crop prices, and relevant policy and national/international news. With this information, these farmers make informed decisions about agricultural practices and sales to increase efficiency and decrease post-harvest loss.

From many markets to one. Small-scale producer aggregation plays a vital role in boosting market access and reducing food loss. This is demonstrated by Yuva Mitra Agro (an Indian agri-consultancy and producer company), which gives equity to member farmers and offers inputs, training, and information to smallholder food producers. Experience shows that this goes a long way towards making agriculture a profitable venture for small and marginal farmers. One example of its support offering is the Devnadi Valley Agricultural Producers Company, a 550-farmer-strong organisation that buys farm inputs at bulk rates for its members. Devnadi will soon open retail outlets to sell crops and packaged food directly to consumers, and member farmers will share costs and profits in proportion to how much food they contribute.

Governments can pave the way for reducing food loss, but are sometimes part of the problem. While the Indian government has played an active role in food security via the Food Corporation of India (FCI), there is scope for more strategic involvement. Set up by the government forty years ago (when India was on the brink of famine), the FCI was tasked with procurement of grains from farmers and its launch ushered in the concept of the minimum selling price (MSP), which guarantees farmers a price for their produce. Today, it maintains a level of operational and buffer stocks of grains in warehouses and distributes as needed. It is often criticised for the amount of food wasted and spoiled in these storage units, especially in light of the malnutrition suffered in parts of India. This indicates that there is an additional role for the government to play that includes reducing such waste. Other possible interventions include paving bad roads, increasing access to wholesale markets, and simplifying the bureaucracy surrounding food distribution, export and import. In this area, Africa can also learn from instances in Asia, where such tactics have successfully reduced loss by ensuring that food reaches the market more quickly.