While rainfall can easily be associated with high agricultural production, in many African countries abundant rains also come with enormous damage to food that has already been produced. At least 30% of food in Africa is said to be lost before it is consumed. Too much rainfall accounts for a significant proportion of such post-harvest losses. Major efforts to address post-harvest losses have focused on maize grain with metal silos and chemicals being introduced in many farming communities. This is in spite of the fact that maize grain is just one component of local food baskets.
A comprehensive post-harvest strategy should look beyond maize grain and embrace the whole basket of commodities that have to be preserved, especially against rainfall-related damages. Unfortunately, as soon as the rainy season begins, African policy makers and inputs providers tend to be pre-occupied with moving inputs to farmers without commensurate attention to preserving what has already been produced. With little attention paid to market infrastructure, rainfall also damages food in informal markets.
Why most smallholder farmers do not invest in storage facilities
Low volumes of commodities produced by individual smallholder farmers make it less cost effective for them to invest in storage or incur costs in taking the few commodities to the market. As a result, the majority of smallholder farmers keep their food and harvests in their kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms. Commodities kept that way may not be ideal for the market. There is also a limit to the quantity of commodities a farmer can store in the house. Unavailability of appropriate or sufficient storage facilities also limits production levels as available storage influences production decisions. Even where conditions are suitable for doubling productivity, farmers hesitate to increase production because their storage capacity cannot be equally doubled.
Opportunities for collective storage
Containerization of agricultural commodities at community level is one innovation that eMKambo has started exploring together with new partners. Through this innovation, solar powered containers will be set up in production zones. This will help farmers to collectively aggregate their commodities, providing a sense of the collective volume of commodities from one area. Containerization will also help farmers to hold onto their commodities and sell profitably rather than be pushed to get rid of commodities due to lack of storage and preservation capacity. Below are some of the commodities to be preserved in containers:
Onions – Apart from drying, storage is one of the main challenges facing onion farmers, leading inconsistent market supply in countries like Zimbabwe. Drying and storing in containers will address problems like loss of quality and reduced shelf life.
Squash butternuts – In food markets across Zimbabwe, during gluts, butternuts can sell for 22c/kg and the price can go up to 72c/kg during periods of scarcity. This variation is not good for the consumer and the market although it may be good for a few farmers who may have butternuts during scarcity periods. Containerization and warehousing will solve some of these supply and demand mismatches.
High value commodities (red, yellow & green peppers) – These commodities cannot be produced in winter. During off-season their price can be as high as $2/kg. Containerization and storage will ensure an even flow of these commodities into the market, avoiding wild price variability.
Fruits (apples, oranges and peaches) – These tend to run out completely and can be stored when in season for release when out of season.
Dry crops (groundnuts, sugar beans, etc.,) – These can also be stored for release as and when the market is ready to pay a better price. Prices of sugar beans also tend to go up towards the rainy season as most people purchase for seed.
Sweet potatoes – These can also be stored in containers. Given that most farmers store this crop in the field, storage facilities can quickly release land for other uses or for preparation processes so that the next crop is planted on time.
Small grains – These can also be stored for both human and livestock consumption. An increase in the production of indigenous chickens has started driving the demand for small grains in Zimbabwe. This is likely to stimulate small grains production.
A critical look at preservation and storage will give agriculture a complete picture. It is should not be just about addressing insects and rushing commodities to the market. Investment in post-harvest and market infrastructure will help all value chain actors such as producers and consumers. In most cases, commodities are produced when the market is not ready. Besides protecting agricultural commodities from rainfall, containerization is a critical stage in enabling market readiness.
eMkambo Call Centre: 0771 859000-5/ 0716 331140-5 / 0739 866 343-6