September 29, 2020
By Brett Rierson, Harvest Agricultural Solutions, Ltd.
Africa’s 180 million smallholder farming families lose more than 30% of their grain crops; they lose even higher levels of fruits and vegetables to insects, rats, and mold1. In many countries, measuring losses at the farm level paints a starker picture, showing that official numbers vastly underestimate post-harvest losses even before crops leave the farm.
A silent killer, post-harvest losses in Africa have a negative impact comparable to HIV, malaria, or conflict, costing economies billions of dollars per year, and disproportionately affecting the poorest rural families. Not only does post-harvest loss perpetuate poverty for rural communities, but it is also one of the key reasons that the most fertile countries in the world import over $36 billion of food every year. African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina put it succinctly: "If things don't change, Africa's annual spending on food imports would reach $180 billion by 2025."2
Yet in the 1980s, a clever new technology emerged in Latin America that has the potential to revolutionize smallholder farming. Hermetic storage consistently reduces post-harvest grain losses from over 30% to less than 2%.3 Deceptively simple, hermetic (airtight) containers can safely store properly dried grains. In these containers, insects suffocate on their own CO2, and the low oxygen environment arrests the growth of aflatoxins, one of Africa’s most dangerous health threats.
The outcomes of using hermetic storage directly tie to many of the Sustainable Development Goals: Researchers from the University of Zurich’s ETH Zurich, a leading research institution on post-harvest loss, found that when families in Tanzania started to use hermetic storage, the number of food insecure households in the lean season reduced by 38% after only one harvest.4 Similarly, an MIT Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation (CITE) assessment for USAID in Uganda showed statistically significant improvement on food availability, family income, household health and nutrition, girls’ and boys’ education, women’s workload, and the socio-economic status of women.5 The driver for this change? Farmers were using hermetic storage at home.
That’s why it was exciting to see a new, private sector-oriented effort in Kenya encourage the sale and use of hermetic storage to vulnerable populations. The AgResults Kenya On-Farm Storage Challenge Project (2014-2018) used monetary prizes to incentivize hermetic storage companies to develop, market, and sell on-farm storage devices to smallholder farmers, enhancing distribution networks while tackling post-harvest loss. Over four years, the Pay-for-Results prize competition distributed over $6 million in prize money to the private sector ‘competitors’ that exceeded 21,000 metric tons (MT) of storage sold.
Of the nine companies that participated in the program, only three met the storage capacity threshold. AgroZ®, Bell Industries, and Elite. Although sales from all nine companies benefited farmers, AgroZ®’s efforts are worth highlighting. Based in Arusha, Tanzania, they saw hermetic storage technologies as a solution to one of Africa’s greatest challenges — and realized manufacturing and selling AgroZ® Bags could become a massive, profitable business. Although AgroZ® entered the competition six months late, AgResults’ monetary prizes were an effective incentive to prepare and open a new production line, and to further build out the company’s distribution channels in Kenya. From November 2015 to May 2018, as a participant in the competition, AgroZ® sold 436,567 storage devices that translated to 117,553 MT of improved storage capacity, earning over US$2.2 million in prizes (35% of the total prize pool). For context, the nine participating companies sold a total of 1,390,777 storage devices during the competition.
Thanks to AgroZ®’s continued investment in distribution channels and awareness building even after the competition, the real returns are emerging now. Post-competition, from May 2018 to September 2020, the company sold 1,709,626 AgroZ® Bags. Given that each bag lasts three harvests, that’s a 500,000 MT increase in safe storage. By the end of 2020, AgroZ® expects cumulative sales to cross 2.5 million. The company continues to expand throughout sub-Saharan Africa: The AgroZ® Bag is now available in Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia and will soon launch in Ethiopia, Malawi, and Rwanda.
It’s one thing when a truly game-changing technology like hermetic storage enters the market; it’s another thing entirely when smallholder farmers can access this transformative solution. As the story of AgroZ® shows, the carefully designed and executed AgResults prize competition succeeded in leveraging existing market forces to drive outcomes that reduce post-harvest loss and will be sustained for years to come.
Established in Uganda in 2020, Harvest Agricultural Solutions Ltd. (HAS) is a non-profit social enterprise that focuses on post-harvest loss and aflatoxin challenges. HAS’ mission is to ensure that by 2030, 100% of Africa’s farmers, across all 54 countries, are aware that ending post-harvest losses is a realistic option, and then that at least 50 million of these families have made the choice to purchase and use hermetic storage, in line with the African Union’s Malabo Declaration and SDG 12.3. For more information, contact email@example.com, or find them on Facebook.
1. WFP’s Post-Harvest Knowledge & Operations Centre, 2018