This post was originally published on World Food USA’s blog.
Picture this: You’re a farmer on a mango plantation in Haiti. You pick your mangoes, load them up in a truck, and send them along to a fruit exporter to sell your fruit abroad. You’re excited – this was a good crop and you feel confident that your sweet, tangy mangoes will please consumers.
But your mangoes, the ones you were so proud of, do not get sold. Because you couldn’t afford crates to package the mangoes, and because of Haiti’s bumpy, unpaved roads, by the time it reached the exporter, your fruit was damaged, bruised and unsellable.
Unfortunately, this waste that occurs along the farm-to-fork value chain – a term called “post-harvest loss”- is widespread across the developing world. It can have a serious impact on economic development. Post-harvest loss doesn’t just affect farmers, it affects traders and others along the value chain. It also affects the price a product can garner on the market.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the African Development Bank estimate that, in Africa alone, quantitative post-harvest loss of cereal grains, roots, and tuber crops, fruits and vegetables, meat, milk, and fish tops US $48 billion each year (Meanwhile, the region’s agricultural imports totaled US $37.7 billion in 2012). From the perspective of an individual farmer, losing 2 to 3 percent of his crop each year effectively translates into losing a whole year of income over his lifetime.
With a growing population and a surging demand for food, reducing post-harvest loss is critical to sustainably achieving global food security and securing development goals. But it’s more complex than you think.
Post-harvest loss manifests itself differently in each context. The cause of post-harvest loss can vary by season, location, and even specific handling conditions. For example, two neighboring states in India, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, both cultivated black gram but faced different post-harvest challenges. Farmers in Maharashtra lost portions of their crop due to heavy rains during harvest and drying. Meanwhile, farmers in Madhya Pradesh lost portions of their crop because they did not own or know how to operate threshers, machines that separate the black gram from the rest of the plant.
So what can we do to reduce these losses and boost our food supply? Given the complexity and diversity of post-harvest loss, having relevant data available for policymaking is paramount. Typically, collecting data to evaluate the source and measure the magnitude of post-harvest loss is both time and resource intensive.
A data revolution, made possible by the advent of mobile phones, may change this and help kickstart the solution. Worldwide, 6.4 billion people use mobile phones, and the technology has already been adapted to a wide variety of development challenges, including providing training to smallholder farmers. Mobile phones can potentially be used as sensors to assess the temperatures of stored grain and as cameras to document images of losses. Better integrating smallholder farmers into markets will further boost incentives for them to measure and address these losses. Armed with this information, the public and private sectors can then deploy the appropriate policy solutions, including constructing storage structures, developing crop varieties with resistance to damage from insects and fungi, and using more efficient mechanized threshers.
So what would a mango farmer do if he had access to all the resources available to reduce post-harvest loss? Easy. He’d invest in crates and load his fruit up properly.
More of his fruit would get sold on the international market and earn better prices. That would bring more money back to his family and community, money that could be used to send his children to school, to pay for healthcare for his family, and to help fix local roads. Tackling the problem of post-harvest loss is not just about achieving food security, it’s about giving communities the tools they need to grow and develop on their own.