By Mark Limo,
Every year across the country, unacceptable levels of food loss continue to occur. Although these losses are being recorded at every stage in the supply chain, from production through the retail and consumer levels, the area of the highest concern are pre – farm gate, where poor .harvesting, drying, processing and storage of crops occurs. Post – harvest management at farm level is the critical starting point in the supply chain.
Current inefficiencies in this segment represent one of the largest contributing factors to food insecurity in Kenya, directly affecting the lives of millions of small holder families every year and impacting enormously on available values of food for consumption and trade in low income, food deficit countries.
In 2011, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported annual food losses in the sub – Saharan Africa exceeding 30% of the total crop production and representing more the USD $ 4 billion in value every year.
Even at the lower estimation, these annual food losses far exceed the total amount of international food aid provided each year to the sub – Saharan African countries.
Whilst there are numerous contributing factors to these post – harvest losses, the lack of adequate post – harvest management knowledge and equipment to implement sound grain preparation and storage practices among low income farmers are seen to be the principle reasons. Despite the large number of investigative papers written on the recurring post – harvest food losses in Kenya, each providing recommendations as to how to resolve the problem, there is little evidence of the recommendations being acted upon.
All crops are naturally subject to biological deterioration, but the rate of deterioration can be highly influenced by a range of factors; starting from individual farming practices and continuing through the chain of interdependent activities between harvest and delivery of foods to consumers.
Post – harvest can be described as a value chain, where a variety of functions are performed, including harvesting , harvesting, assembling, drying, threshing, storage, transportation and marketing.
Inefficient management practices which allow crops to be unnecessarily exposed to contamination by micro – organisms, chemicals, excessive moisture, fluctuating temperature extremes, mechanical damage and ineffective storage practices contribute greatly to food losses.
Adding to the losses caused by biological deterioration are the serious health risks which arise when damage caused to the external pods of legumes or husk/kerrels of grains during pre and post –harvest stages contribute to aflatoxins contamination and mould growth
Improving post – harvest management competencies amongst low – income or small holder farmers will not only lead to increased crop preservation and food volumes for consumption and trade, it has the potential to directly impact on the health and well-being of all people living in the region.
There is no procedure for eliminating an aflatoxin after it is produced, however limiting or avoiding concentrations can be achieved under proper management. Contamination can be controlled with careful pre – and post – harvest management. Pre – harvest instructions on land preparation and the correct timing of planting and harvesting to reduce plant’s susceptibility to aflatoxins, as well as guidance on controlling moisture content and avoiding direct crop contact with exposed soil was provided.
Small – holder farmers should learn the importance of properly drying crops to reduce the chance of fungal growth and ways of creating low humidity storage conditions. The traditional practice of stock piling dried crops either directly on the floor, in baskets, or in polypropylene sacks on the floor of storage facilities or houses is strongly advised against, regardless of the duration of storage.
Capacity development is also critical in achieving lasting change. An indispensable component of reducing food losses involves farmer education on ways of improving post – harvest management.
In addition to improved farming practices, the introduction of new farming equipment e.g. Hermetic storage is vital in minimizing post – harvest food losses.
Hermetic storage is when a sealed container does not allow oxygen and water to move between the outside atmosphere and the internally stored grain, the internal build – up of carbon dioxide will eventually reach a level of toxicity where it is impossible for insects and moulds to survive.
Consequently, food loss is a solvable problem in Kenya. The degree to which the current concern can be eliminated will depend largely on the supporting policies of both the National Government and the County Governments, and the willingness of other agencies and the global community to assist with implementing the proven solutions over the coming years.
By Mark Limo (KALRO)