Reducing Food Loss in Africa South of the Sahara

In developing regions like Africa south of the Sahara, a significant amount of food produced is lost during the pre-harvest, harvest, and post-harvest stages of the agricultural value chain. Such losses present a significant challenge for poverty reduction and food security because they both lower producers’ incomes and raise food prices for consumers. In addition, inefficiencies in the global food system, like food loss during production and processing, make that system much less environmentally sustainable by wasting scarce natural resources.

As Chapter 3 of IFPRI’s 2016 Global Food Policy Report points out, another important source of food loss in developing countries comes from food that could have been produced under different circumstances. In other words, land may have the potential to produce certain food yields but those yields never materialize due to inefficient use of agricultural inputs and technologies. It is important to capture this potential production in estimations of overall food loss, say the chapter authors, in order to gain a true picture of the magnitude of food loss in developing countries; to do so, they suggest the use of a new definition – potential food loss and waste, or PFLW, which captures food loss and waste across the entire agricultural value chain, from pre-harvest losses and losses in potential production through processing all the way to table waste at the consumer level.

In addition to requiring a more comprehensive definition, estimations of food loss and waste need to account for the fact that loss and waste occur at different points of the value chain in different geographical locations and for different commodities. In regions like SSA, losses are more common in the production and post-harvest stages, as opposed to developed regions, where losses tend to be larger in the retail and consumer stages. Thus, data collection efforts in developing countries should engage with farmers, middlemen, wholesale buyers, and processors and should focus on input use and harvesting, storage, handling, and processing practices.

The chapter provides several case studies examining how losses differ among crops and contexts. In Kenya, potatoes are a particularly important food crop grown primarily by smallholder farmers; one study found that up to 95 percent of recorded crop damage and food loss in the potato value chain occurs at the production level. Losses at this stage stem from poor land and soil management, ineffective pest and disease control measures, use of harvesting tools that damage the plants, and overall insufficiently trained laborers. A similar study, again examining the potato value chain in Kenya, found that bacterial wilt is the most common disease that causes food loss and that the prevalence of wilt in the Kenyan potato value chain is due to inadequate rotation of crops and the use of seeds from informal markets, which tend to be less resilient to disease.

In Nigeria, a study focusing on the cassava value chain used surveys of farmers, marketers, and processors. In contrast to Kenya’s potato value chain, major losses in the Nigerian cassava value chain occur in the postharvest stage, when farmers, middlemen, and agroprocessing companies handle and process the cassava into gari, a food product for Human consumption, and starch, used by the food and beverage industry. Losses at this stage stem from spoilage of fresh cassava during transport and storage due to improper practices, as well as from discarding of tubers deemed too small or of poor quality for processing.

This finding – that cassava faces larger losses during the postharvest stage – supports findings from a wider study of cassava in Ghana, Nigeria, and Vietnam published in the Journal of Agriculture and Rural Development in the Tropics and Subtropics, which found that processing delays, caused by a lack of capacity to peel tubers in a timely manner, led to spoilage and losses. It is estimated that improvements in the processing sector, such as a shift to mechanical peeling, could help lower losses in this value chain by about 44 percent, according to the chapter.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) have placed emphasis on food loss and waste as part of their wider goals of reducing food insecurity and improving sustainability. SDG 12.3 sets the target of halving global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reducing food loss along the global agricultural value chain by 2030. To meet these goals, developing regions like SSA should focus first on reducing food loss, but should also learn from other countries’ best practices to prevent food waste as their economies grow and populations’ consumption patterns change.

Governments in developing countries should focus interventions on smallholder farmers, who often face market failures that contribute significantly to food loss and waste. Interventions could include establishing appropriate storage facilities and transportation systems, improving access to credit, supporting market incentives for improved food safety and quality targets, and improving access to crop varieties that are more resistant to drought, heat, pest, and disease.

Further reading on the impacts and measurement of food loss and waste:

Measuring Food Loss and Waste

Reducing Food Waste Could Help Mitigate Climate Change

3 Steps for Tackling Food Loss and Waste

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI