Re: Food losses and waste in the context of sustainable food systems - E-consultation to set the track of the study

Lisa Kitinoja The Postharvest Education Foundation, United States of America

Dear moderators,

I have been following this online discussion (Food losses and waste in the context of sustainable food systems ) during the past few months, and it is good to see input and ideas coming in from many countries and types of organizations.

A few years ago I led a postharvest food losses study for the Gates Foundation, and we took a look back at 12 "agricultural development projects" funded by the World Bank, USAID , USDA, JICA, etc. to see what had worked or did not work in terms of helping smallholders in developing countries to reduce food losses. More than 45 scientists from a dozen countries participated in 2 years of field research including face to face interviews of past project beneficiaries and managers in 6 countries (Egypt, Kenya, Ghana, Indonesia, India and Rwanda).

The report summary can  be found online here:

BMGF Appropriate Postharvest Technologies project (WFLO 2009-10) (slide deck) (full report)

The key recommendations are as follow:

Building on Lessons Learned

Future projects should incorporate the major lessons learned from the 12 projects that were revisited by our WFLO/UC Davis postharvest teams, and the results of our 30 commodity systems assessments and 24 postharvest losses and quality assessments.

1) Focus on the Beneficiaries

Many of our assessments pointed to the need to advocate agri-business skills, attitudes and aspirations.

  • Treat farmers as agri-business people rather than just as farmers.  Rural youth are especially interested in developing business and entrepreneurial skills.
  • Ask smallholder farmers to consider issues beyond their farm plots – address the entire value chain, take more responsibilities in return for additional opportunities for profit making
  • Deliver targeted training or agricultural extension services that help improve the quality of produce, postharvest handling and marketing linkages.
  • Provide training in local languages, incorporate audio-visual training aids
  • Aim to be not only more productive but more profitable. 

Many of the most successful past projects assisted farmers to become active marketers, rather than passively waiting for a trader to arrive at their farm gate and offer a price. When farmers were willing to take on more responsibility for their crops and become direct marketers, by learning how to grade, pack, handle and sell their produce directly to the retailer, they also gained more of the financial rewards.

2) Work through Groups

Whether via informal groups, co-operatives or formal associations, it is vital to work with groups to impact policy and reach large numbers of people.

Groups are the key to:

  • Improving communication in order to strengthen marketing capacity and market linkages
  • Assessing local needs, facilitating targeted training, introducing new crops and technologies
  • Managing contracts and sales beyond capacity of individuals. 
  • Gathering and incorporating farmer feedback to assist in measuring the effectiveness of interventions
  • Building privatization efforts (moving from project provided services to community provided services)
  • Development of financing opportunities (micro-credit, creative schemes)
  • Designing appropriate, cost effective innovation delivery systems (providing people with the information and skills they need, when and where and in a way they can best understand and use it).

The CSA process we used to gather information on commodity systems during this planning project can be inexpensively and effectively applied to reassess the progress of farmer groups as they try out and adopt or reject new postharvest technologies.

Recent grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for micro-finance ($38m) will allow 18 institutions to expand their portfolios, and reach more smallholder farmers.

3) Women's issues remain important

Access of women to credit, training and extension services remain lower than that of men. Ideas for improvements include:

  • Increasing the number and percentage of women hired and trained as extension workers
  • Holding training programs and extension meetings close to the homes of women so they can attend more easily
  • Holding meetings/trainings in the afternoon since women have a lot of household and farm work to take care of in the mornings
  • Offering trainings via video, posters, discussions, role playing, etc (to increase accessibility and relevance for those who are non-literate).

Many of these issues were recently highlighted by a report from the World Food Programme (2009).

4) Postharvest best practices should be incorporated early on in projects.

Identifying appropriate interventions is the first step key, since barriers affecting adoption of postharvest interventions include complexity, availability and perceived costs versus benefits. Having a year round supply of vegetables could improve the nutritional status of rural families, and especially for young children and their mothers.

The World Bank estimates that 20–25% of the global disease burden for children is due to under-nutrition (World Bank, 1993). Postharvest technology is an important part of achieving food security. According to the UN, Food security is typically subdivided into three components: (i) availability, or the existence of an adequate and stable supply of food; (ii) access, or the ability to obtain (physically or economically) appropriate and nutritious food; and (iii) utilization, or the ability to consume and benefit from nutritious foods (UN, 1996).

Postharvest best practices include:

  • Clean and efficient sorting, grading, packing, cooling, storage
  • These topics should be addressed via agricultural extension and related to infrastructure development and technology improvements
  • Past project assessments revealed that most of the postharvest activities implemented in the assessed projects were too few and too late. 

Work is on-going by our economic team members to develop an "expert system" for decision making regarding when to use which postharvest technology for what crops. Key decision making inputs include how the technology can affect postharvest losses, shelf life and market value for a specific crop, and what the technology will cost in a specific location.

5) Invest wisely in postharvest infrastructure

  • Make investments early in the project (on the farms, at packinghouses, for transport or storage, as well as in the markets). 
  • Develop the infrastructure to enhance their agri-business (consider location, access, costs, etc).
  • Match the facilities (cost, size, scope) to local needs and management capabilities.
  • Develop and enhance horticultural value chains by improving communication
  • Deliver training to ensure that infrastructure is utilized and maintained properly. 
  • Build in sustainability by using rational business models for providing businesses services (fee for service)

Training in postharvest horticulture increases readiness and willingness to make changes, but if postharvest infrastructure and marketing support is not there for participants, the results of training can be frustration. Similarly, providing infrastructure without training can be a disaster waiting to happen— successful postharvest management requires complex knowledge and skills.

Improving communication regarding pertinent information (i.e. expected weather changes, availability and prices of postharvest supplies, consumer demands, changes in the needs of traders and market prices) will require outreach efforts via accessible methods such as local radio, inexpensive mobile phones, internet kiosks or via visual means (for example daily updated whiteboards posting market prices).

6) Build local capacity (strengthen institutions, human resources, community services)

Training should leave behind a cadre of local trainers and support service businesses to continue the work that is started by a development project. Capacity building includes:

  • Postharvest technical and educational program development, especially targeting women and rural youths
  • combining lab research with adaptive on-farm or market based fieldwork
  • training of master trainers
  • network creation (helping members of the value chain meet and get to know each other)
  • resource identification and strengthening of support services (local postharvest suppliers, repair services, engineers, credit)
  • Building functional local capacity seems to have a strong relationship to sustainability
  • Designing appropriate innovation delivery systems depends upon first developing this local capacity.

We recommend that future projects include Commodity Systems Assessment (CSA) as a methodology for training extension workers— the CSA process requires them to work as a team, learn by doing, study all the details on the local commodity system, meet key players, decision makers, producers, postharvest handlers, processors, marketers, and understand the value chain from field to fork. The original CSAM manual is available online from the UN FAO inPHo website (LaGra, 1990).

Several of our consultants recommended that future projects include the methodology for mapping and influencing dynamic agrifood markets (includes Value Chain Mapping) as one of the first steps of any new development project. The manual is available online from <>  (Vermeulen et al, 2008).

Hall and Devereau (2000), when studying low cost storage for sweet potatoes in Uganda, found that a combination of lab research centered at modern institutions and a adaptive research fieldwork based approach could be used to improve results and speed the technology validation process.

7) Projects should have a longer term focus

  • A longer project cycle (7 to 10 years) would increase the likelihood of sustainable results.
  • Projects that follow up on evaluation based recommendations (such as those provided in this report) can achieve good results. 
  • Horticultural development project plans should be flexible enough to allow for adjustments during implementation

8) Promote an Integrated Postharvest Management System

Our final recommendation is to promote an integrated postharvest management system beginning with "training of master postharvest trainers".

One of the unplanned side effects of this planning project has been to raise the expectation of potential target groups, since once they learned a little nit about how postharvest technology can help improve their livelihoods they actively have been seeking more information and requesting future training. Direct requests have already been made for:

  • Training in the establishment of cool chain management for horticultural crops (Rwanda, India).
  • Installation of cool chambers and training of farmers (Rwanda, Ghana).
  • Training on simple village level food processing methods (India, Nepal, Benin)
  • Training of postharvest trainers (Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Cameroon, Kenya, Zimbabwe, India, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh)

The following steps would be required:

  • Smallholder farmers could then be locally trained to begin with improving quality on the farm (using maturity indices, gentle handling, pre-sorting, protective packages, and shade)
  • Training of master trainers in each target country – includes training in technical knowledge in horticulture, appropriate postharvest technology, business development skills, cost/benefit analyses, improved teaching/training practices. Master trainers serve to leverage any future training efforts by having a multiplier effect.
  • Farmers could be encouraged to learn about direct marketing and the many new responsibilities it entails
  • Postharvest tools and supplies should be made available for sale at rural postharvest shops (make it easier for farmers to try any new technology)
  • Smallholder farmers could be trained to develop decision making skills for utilizing when appropriate, some form of cooling, storage or processing in order to further enhance the market value of their horticultural crops.
  • Micro-credit or rent-to own models should be integrated into any outreach efforts.

Initially, the focus of any new development project should be to provide basic information and demonstrations of these simple practices that can reduce postharvest losses. The longer term goal should be to promote the use of cooling and cool or cold storage and transport practices that can protect the investment of the farmers and can further reduce losses. Globally, investments in the cold chain often have been shown to repay themselves in a short period of time (Kitinoja, 2008)—hence the existence of an enormous number of companies around the world that offer services in cooling, cold storage and transport for a fee that is willingly paid by the owner of the produce— and this reduction in waste theoretically allows for three positive outcomes. The grower can receive more for their crops, while the middlemen or marketers lose less during handling and transport, and the consumer gets a better quality product at the same or lower price.  By making an investment in appropriate scale postharvest technologies we can therefore achieve a win/win/win situation, where everyone involved in the value chain will benefit. The cool chain simply protects the food supply as it moves along the value chain—so we can end up with more food, of better quality, safer and more nutritious to eat, and at a lower price because we have reduced the level of waste.


Dr. Lisa Kitinoja

The Postharvest Education Foundation

PO Box 38, La Pine, Oregon 97739 USA

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