My ‘Food Quest’ with Rockefeller

Systemic stories

Thomas Odenwald

04 August 2014

Did you know that, in India, 40% of all fresh fruit and vegetables, valued at $8.3 billion, rots every year before reaching consumers?

The term food loss refers to food that spills, spoils, or rots before it reaches the consumer. It is the unintended result of an agricultural process or technical limitation in storage, infrastructure, packaging or marketing. According to the World Resources Institute, reducing food loss and waste is a far more resource-efficient way of increasing food supplies than simply increasing production:

‘reducing food loss and waste can alleviate poverty and provide gender benefits while reducing pressure on ecosystems, climate, and water. Reducing food loss and waste may be one of those rare multiple “win-win” strategies.’

Recently I had the honour of being invited to join leading experts in the field of agriculture on a programme in India designed by Leaders’ Quest and sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Our task was ‘simple’: explore solutions for post-harvest food loss and learn from India’s ‘green revolution’ and ‘white revolution’ to see what innovations could be applied in an African context (Rockefeller plans to make a big investment in Africa to mitigate post-harvest food loss).

Rockefeller was particularly interested in exploring ideas that:

  • are scalable at low cost.
  • can be adopted broadly by small-holder farmers.
  • are transferable to an African context.

I can say up front, it was an amazing experience. A Quest typically takes a group of participants on a truly inspiring learning journey, generating new insights and networks for leaders and for the systems they influence.

On our Quest we met with farmers, traders, bankers, CEOs, social entrepreneurs, policy makers, NGOs, community activists and consumers. These are the individuals and organisations who are addressing the major challenges of food loss with real creativity.

Some impressions from our discussions…

Observation: all our farmer/trader hosts were male. No women were part of the discussions.

No-Go: All farmers are aware the climate is changing, frequency of floods and droughts is increasing and increasingly unpredictable. But the concept that this is ‘man-made’ and agriculture is one of the biggest contributors is not something actively being discussed (yet).

Funny: I mentioned in one of the gatherings that I drive an electric vehicle at home, purely powered by batteries. The farmers could not believe this and had a big laugh, asking me if there is a windmill on the car roof.

Even Funnier: Since we already talked about the ‘funny’ western world, I tried to explain the concept of ‘carpool lanes’. Not a dry eye at the table, they could not stop laughing. Whoever experienced traffic in India understands that even the concept ‘lane’ does not exist, let alone ‘carpool lanes’.

Despite all the amazing progress in India, we learned that:

  • In recent years, Indian food prices have risen at double-digit levels: last year, wholesale onion prices leapt over 270% after rains delayed the harvest and damaged crops. What makes matters worse is the fact that onions are 85% water. When stocked in archaic storage in India’s blisteringly hot summers, they lose weight fast – and farmers are paid by weight.
  • About 54% of India’s land area is arable, but the annual cost of environmental degradation runs to around $80 billion. Over 70% of India’s surface water is polluted and more than 50% of industries may be discharging effluents above the prescribed standards. UNICEF says that toxic water and poor hygiene cause around 600,000 child deaths every year.
  • New Delhi’s Energy and Resources Institute estimates that by 2047, waste generation in India’s cities will increase five-fold to touch 260 million tonnes per year.

India’s supply chain is dominated by traditional traders and small retail outlets and has struggled to modernise. Investment is needed for cold-storage facilities (currently available for just 10% of perishable produce) and other modern logistical support. India is the second largest producer of fruit, vegetable and fish, and the largest producer of milk, in the world. Yet, more than 20% of the population remains undernourished, despite an almost 50% increase in food production over the last decade. Half of Indian children under the age of five are chronically malnourished.

There is a lack of market information and learning mechanisms for farmers. Middlemen often collude to pretend there is no demand for products. Farmers (lacking storage facilities, up-to-date price information, credit and finance opportunities) are unable to negotiate a fair price. The widespread introduction of mobile phones and progress in IT solutions is starting to change this.

It became clear on the Quest that there is no single lever to create transformational change. Instead it takes a systems approach, combining policy influence, hardware and software innovation to bring scalable, sustainable change.

The sub-Saharan African context is very similar. African farm yields are among the lowest in the world, 75% of food loss and waste occurs during production and storage, with almost nothing lost at consumption level.

Nigeria, for example, is the largest producer of tomatoes in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet post-harvest losses are estimated at 45-60%. Kenya’s post-harvest losses in maize constitute 125% of the country’s imports, yet reducing the loss by 75% would make the country self-sufficient in maize.

Going forward, we are working with Rockefeller to put a strategy together that:

  • reduces post-harvest food loss.
  • improves smallholder and framer incomes.
  • increases dietary diversity.
  • allows more efficient use of scarce natural resources (water, land for crops, fertiliser) and reduces GHG emissions.

Globally, over 1 billion people are employed in agriculture, yet the number of hungry people is also close to 1 billion. Many organisations, including my own, believe Africa will be their fastest-growing market over the next couple of years.

We know the world is facing serious challenges to meet the needs of its fast-growing population: estimates show that by 2030 we will need 30% more water, 50% more energy and 50% more food. This needs to be managed in the context of climate change that may impact negatively on supplies of water and food. At the same time, we see a growing middle class with shifting consumer preferences for higher value.

Therefore, any sustainable strategy needs to include addressing the food value chain with emphasis on post-harvest food loss.

For me personally, the Quest was the experience of a lifetime. We saw first-hand what is possible with today’s technologies, if deployed appropriately, and how small groups of dedicated experts can bring real change in areas most of us are not even aware of. Scaling up these efforts has the potential for dramatic positive impact. Who would like to be part of this?

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’ Margaret Mead