Food waste in Africa and other developing nations is an entirely different problem than it is in developed regions. In developing regions, often the biggest chunk of food loss — more than 40 percent — occurs during the post-harvest phase, according to a 2011 U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report. But in developed regions, the biggest chunk — again more than 40 percent — occurs at the retail and consumer levels.
Across sub-Saharan Africa, more than a third of fruits, vegetables, roots, and tubers are lost by the time they are processed or packaged, according to the FAO report, the most recent comprehensive estimate available. More precise estimates vary from year to year and from country to country. In Kenya, pests destroy up to 30 percent of all maize harvested — a total loss of about 162 million tons, according to the government-run Kenya Agricultural Research Institute. Ghana, meanwhile, loses up to 50 percent of its main crops of vegetables, fruits, cereals, roots, and tubers, said Joe Oteng-Adjei, the country's Minister for Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation, according to the news service GhanaWeb.
Like much of sub-Saharan Africa, Tanzania produces all kinds of food for local consumption as well as export. Yet here, in the part of the world that can arguably least afford to waste food, a good portion of these crops are lost. Much of the loss happens before the food can be eaten, during the so-called "post-harvest" phase between harvest and the point of sale or consumption. The problem is that the equipment and methods that many small-scale farmers use to process and store their crops are inadequate, so months after the harvest, tons of corn might be infested with insects or contaminated with toxic mold. More perishable crops like fruits and vegetables may become inedible in a matter of days. Long a neglected aspect of the agricultural system in developing countries, this waste stream of food is starting to attract attention from global agriculture organizations and financial institutions, offering hope that the losses can be reduced, and with them rates of rural hunger and malnutrition.
The food waste problem has been neglected for so long that there's no long-term data to show whether these figures have changed over time. In fact, the FAO and other organizations have acknowledged that even existing estimates are not particularly reliable, because the measurement methods are haphazard at best. What's clear is that food in sub-Saharan Africa is being wasted on a large scale, and any progress in reducing that waste should benefit the region — and even the global food supply — significantly. A World Bank report, also issued in 2011, stated that even a 1 percent reduction in post-harvest losses could lead to annual economic gains of $40 million, much of it going directly to farmers.
The waste is an economic loss, but it is also a loss of precious nutrition and calories. The World Bank report estimated that the value of annual losses, $4 billion, exceeds the total value of food aid sent to sub-Saharan Africa in the decade up to 2008. Even as international efforts to reduce hunger in the region have increased, most of the dollars spent have focused on boosting crop yields, despite the lack of means for storing extra crops.
"More production is not going to be able to fill that gap that we're worried about to feed the world in the future. What we have to do is reduce losses," said Lisa Kitinoja, founder of the Oregon-based, nonprofit Postharvest Education Foundation.
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