Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Simple science-based solutions can reduce hunger and poverty
Last Saturday, October 16 was the United Nation’s World Food Day. A day set aside for us all to reflect on the fate of the 950 million women and children worldwide that, according to UN statistics, go to sleep hungry.
The vast majority of the hungry, obviously are the world’s poor. Rarely would anyone with money in their pockets lack food. Unfortunately, majority of the world’s poor and hungry live in Africa.
Why has Africa not able to meet its food needs despite years of investing in the agricultural sector? There are as many reasons as there are answers and solutions. However, there are a few areas I would like to highlight that would make a big difference if they received adequate attention.
Post harvest loss - the big hole that food meant for the hungry falls into - is top of my list. Farm produce rotting in the fields is a very common scenario in Africa. Due to poor infrastructure, small-holder farmers are unable to get them to the market or in times of abundance, they flood the market, prices drop drastically and discouraged farmers let them rot. The good harvest becomes a curse.
Early in the year, we saw farmers in Kenya pouring their milk when the production outweighed the capacity of the industry to absorb it. This must have been a very painful exercise for them – it was literary pouring much-needed money down the drain.
Similarly in Tanzania, we are just coming out of the oranges season. If you travel in the orange-growing areas, the fruits are rotting in the farms and in the markets. On the other hand in the supermarkets, a box of orange juice, most probably imported, fetches a tidy sum.
Why didn’t the Kenyan farmers make cheese and yoghurt? Why aren’t their Tanzanian counterparts making juices and jams? Is it lack of capital, knowledge, processing equipment, confidence by the farmers or even a pioneer to set an example for the farmers? It is a combination of all these and others.
The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) is working with small-holder farmers to promote simple technologies of processing crops into valuable and marketable products to avoid such post-harvest losses and improve their income.
The institute has had immense success in commercializing cassava by promoting the production of high quality cassava flour and starch. The flour has a wide range of uses at home and in the bakery industries to make cakes, bread, biscuits and other products either on its own or mixed with wheat flour. The starch has diverse uses in the brewery, pharmaceutical, textile, paper, plywood and food industries.
The old crop of Africa is hardy and performs relatively well in drought conditions and with little inputs such as fertilizer.
By using the cassava alternatives, many African countries would save millions of US Dollars by reducing importation of wheat and starch and, at the same time create income for many in the value chain: farmers, transporters, machine fabricators and small scale processor. It would also create employment in the rural areas reducing rural to urban migration.
IITA is using the same approach for soybean, banana and cowpea and the same can be extended to many other crops grown by African farmers.
The farmers can also avoid the glut in the market by changing the timing of their harvest to coincide with low season when the demand and prices are high.
A study by IITA in Uganda - the second largest producer and consumer of bananas in the world - showed that with better timing, farmers can harvest their banana ‘off season’ when prices are better avoiding the huge price fluctuations and post-harvest losses experienced during high production season.
According to the research, though the bunches harvested off-season were relatively lighter by 25% compared to those harvested in peak season, their price was up to 50% higher. Thus they were more profitable.
To fight hunger and its evil twin sister, poverty, efforts to increase Africa’s small-holder farmers production sustainably and in ways that also put money in their pockets must be redoubled. The technologies that enable them to do this must be made available to them with all the necessary support to implement them.
Under this year's theme, United Against Hunger, I salute the men and women working tirelessly to end hunger. Let the struggle continue because it is possible!