News and knowhow for farmers

Homemade solutions enable farmers tame post-harvest losses

Fiona Mukami, a widow and mother of three in the Mwea area of Kirinyaga County systematically smears cooking oil in an earthenware pot the size of a gallon drum. She gives it a final smear before rolling it over to create space for another pot awaiting smearing. This will be her seventh today.

The job is both tiring and sweaty as evidenced by her involuntary facial twitches. But she has to finish it. She knows that the price of not doing it will be costly. She is preparing a long-lasting storage system for her 100 kilo rice harvest which basks in the sun.

Kilometers away in a small rocky village of Rongai in Nakuru County Boaziz Tamae stops what he is doing in haste, and stares at the heavens that are about to open up before estimating how much time he has left. He meticulously spreads chips of sawdust in his granary, the size of a typical cowshed. This he does to increase the shelf life of this highly perishable product. But beyond the distances, Mukami and Tamae have been united by the grief of losing their yields to voracious pests even before they can enjoy them, and have decided to do something about it.

Leading from the front, they represent tens of thousands of farmers long buffeted by pests who are crafting and embracing low-cost preservation methods for their harvested produce. The damage done to harvests by these pests is one among the key areas of a holistic term dubbed Post-harvest losses which the World Bank and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) say cost Sub-Saharan Africa $4 billion each year in losses in a report “Missing Food: The Case of Post Harvest Grain Losses in Sub Saharan Africa. Ironically over 29 percent of Sub-Saharan African population is ultra-hungry according to ERS’s International Food Security Assessment, 2014-24.

The loss, the agencies say, is enough to meet the minimum annual food requirements of at least 48 million people in the region. Pest invasion in harvested produce accounts for 40 percent of all yields lost in Kenya, scientists say. Yet these losses continue unabated bringing with them life-threatening diseases, and dwindling household incomes as families dispose of their produce at throw-away prices with the fear of them going bad and ultimately market glut.

The post-harvest loss phenomenon which FAO says is more acute in developing countries, especially those in Sub-Saharan Africa has drawn extensive debate at a time when other threats like climate change are threatening to slow food production. “Land is dwindling in Sub-Saharan Africa at an alarming rate. Competition for arable land by real estate and natural resource exploration means food production capacity is now limited. Trouble with that is the fact that population on the other hand is burgeoning putting a strain on food access,” said Prof Vincent Mwangangi an agricultural economist in Nairobi.

Proponents of post-harvest loss reduction argue that it is a cheaper way of increasing food supply instead of producing more to feed a Sub Saharan Population the UN has said is growing faster than in any other part of the world and is estimated to more than double to 2.4 billion by 2050.

But hope springs eternal in the low-cost but transformative innovations spearheaded by the likes of Mukami and Tamae ensuring that smallholder farmers, who form the bulk of all food production in Sub-Saharan Africa at 80 percent, and who cannot afford the prohibitively priced post-harvest machinery, find reprieve.

After smearing the pot with oil, Tamae then lights a candle and passes it inside the pot in circular motions while ensuring it doesn’t melt the oil. The candle smoke is an age-old tried and tested practice of suffocating any insects that may have taken shelter in the pot. She then pours the harvested rice into the pot filling it to the brim. Should there be any space left, sand is added to reduce the chances of survival of any other pest. The lid is then closed and the process of lighting the candle is repeated every day for five minutes to ensure that any hole a farmer may have missed to block with the oil doesn’t attract pests.

“I keep my rice this way for up to six months and only sell it when there is a shortage in the market. This is a huge departure from the past where even within a week of storing weevils would invade my rice and I was left with no option but to sell it very cheaply,” said Mukami. At such times everyone in the area harvests rice and a glut in the market earned Mukami peanuts. “Farming runs in my blood, I rely on it to educate, feed, and clothe my children. Anything that can bring good tidings from my farms I was ready to do,” he said glee written all over her face as she reminisced how a friend introduced her to the concept. Mukami’s profit has soared to 80 percent with her new preservation method.

But Tamae’s marriage with sawdust preservation happened by chance. Collecting sawdust as was the norm which he used as cow bedding, he noticed discarded potatoes that sat on top of the sawdust never went bad two weeks after spotting them.

Curious and with nothing to lose he decided to try with a potion of his potatoes. He first prepares a clean place to place the potatoes, spread the sawdust evenly, spread the potatoes then add another top layer of the sawdust. It was a eureka moment for him when he noticed two months into the preservation the potatoes were still in good shape. “I have now established that you can increase the shelf life of potatoes up to three months from just six weeks,” he said excitedly. It is a model that has been replicated in leaps and bounds across Kenya’s Rift Valley.

As smallholder farmers in Kenya and across Sub-Saharan Africa look for innovative ways of producing more to bridge the yawning deficit between food supply and demand, ensuring what is produced has been consumed without wastage counts in taming key food insecurity that currently stands. Vanguard farmer’s silver bullet in low-cost post-harvest pest control technology is proving potent in making Africa the agricultural supply factory for the entire world as classed by FAO.

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