It is a commonly held belief that post-harvest losses along staple food value chains in developing countries tend to be high. However, a new research note from the Ethiopia Strategy Support Program (ESSP) suggests that in the case of Ethiopian teff, this may not be true.
The note begins to highlighting some criticisms regarding the way in which post-harvest losses have been measured and estimated. These criticisms include a lack of use of detailed field survey estimates, a bias toward more perishable food products (which leads to overestimation of how much is actually being lost), and the exclusion of foods like grains, tubers, and pulses, which make up the bulk of caloric consumption in developing countries.
The authors attempt to overcome these pitfalls by utilizing large-scale field surveys conducted among a wide range of teff stakeholders, from farmers to urban retailers, in major teff-producing regions and in the capital city of Addis Ababa in 2012. This wide lens – encompassing 1200 teff farmers, 205 rural and 75 urban wholesalers and truckers, and 282 retail outlets – gave a surprising finding. Of the total teff grain produced, only between 2.2 and 3.3 percent was lost.
To reach this estimate of actual post-harvest teff loss, the study examined the most prevalent value chain structure through which teff travels in Ethiopia – from farmer to rural wholesaler to urban wholesaler to urban retailer. At each level in the chain, the authors enquired how much teff was lost at harvest, in storage, and during transportation; a sum of these figures was then used to estimate the total post-harvest losses along the entire value chain.
The range in level of losses – from 2.2 percent to 3.3 percent – depends on the storage facility used and on assumed losses during transport on the farm. Most farmers depend on traditional storage structures, either mud-plastered jars or traditional household granaries. Few farmers reported losses during storage on the farm, and the authors estimated that only 0.2 percent of teff harvested is lost in storage at the farm level. At the wholesale level, 0.3 percent is lost, while 0.2 percent is lost at the retail level.
In terms of transportation, the analysis found that most teff is not transported by farmers over large distances; thus, the losses that farmers incur in transport are not significant. For transportation from wholesalers to retailers, aggregate losses are estimated at 0.1 percent by both wholesalers and retailers.
What are the implications of these surprisingly low losses? In terms of future research, the authors emphasize the importance of using primary survey data to measure and estimate losses. They also highlight that their finding of lower-than-expected losses could be due either to inaccurately high previous estimates or to improvements in road conditions that resulted in lower losses in this latest study. Determining to what extent each factor – previous poor measurements or improved infrastructure – played a role in Ethiopia’s real teff post-harvest losses will be important future work. Specifically, the authors highlight the need for consumer-level surveys on teff waste, as well as producer surveys in more remote areas.
In terms of policy implications, researchers and governments need to look at the rate of returns to different types of investments to reduce post-harvest losses. This will provide a greater understanding of the costs of post-harvest losses and make reducing these losses more economically and politically feasible for poor countries.
By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI