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How Insects’ Breath is Saving Crops in Uganda

One-third of the food produced worldwide is lost to spoilage or insects, and the resulting poverty and hunger tend to affect women more than men. But according to a new project run by the World Food Program, the solution is as simple as better storage.

Written by Christine Chung Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A Ugandan woman sifts maize in front of her hut in Guruguru, northern Uganda, in 2006. Farmers in Uganda can lose 40-50 percent of crops to spoilage, insects and theft – a problem that disproportionately affects women.AP/Euan Denholm

Hunger affects 795 million people today – meaning one in every nine people doesn’t get enough to eat. But many experts say the amount of food the world produces would be sufficient to feed everyone, if not for post-harvest loss. According to the U.N.’s World Food Program (WFP), one-third of all food produced – 1.3 billion tons – is lost or wasted. At every stage of the supply chain commodities can be damaged, spoiled or lost while harvested, handled, processed, stored and transported. It’s a significant problem in developing countries, say experts, that disproportionately affects women.

In 2014, WFP launched a project in Uganda to help farmers protect their harvested crops from pests and from dangerous aflatoxin. The key, says Brett Rierson, head of the WFP’s Post-Harvest Knowledge and Operations Center in Uganda, is hermetic storage, a principle that uses natural processes to kill off insects and their larvae. If farmers can save more of their crops for longer, says Rierson, they can get better prices at the market, leading to food security and better resilience for them and their communities.

Rierson spoke to Women & Girls Hub about his organization’s “Zero Loss for Zero Hunger” efforts.

Women & Girls Hub: How can improved storage solve the problem of post-harvest loss?

Brett Rierson: This is actually not new technology. It’s something that was done 30-40 years ago across Latin America, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. It’s actually almost criminal that no one brought it to Africa until now.

Hermetic storage works by using insects’ own breathing to actually kill not only adult insects but also their larvae, the eggs they laid inside the grain. By putting properly dried grain into a hermetic storage unit, the natural respiration of the insects effectively raises the CO2 levels within the storage unit to a level where they perish. It’s that simple.

Traditional granaries are made of mud and sticks and hay, where there are issues not only with insect pests – primarily here in Africa it’s weevils – but also rats, and even theft from human beings. Farmers were losing 40-50 percent of their crops within 1-2 months of harvest, but the impact is actually greater because farmers were being forced to sell their harvest at the lowest prices of the season. Then months later, because there were no effective storage solutions within homes, the same farmer would have to buy back his same grain from a trader at sometimes five, six, seven times the original price. They were in an endless poverty cycle that they really couldn’t get out of.

Women & Girls Hub: How is the post-harvest loss project helping farmers?

Rierson: Uganda for us is more or less a workshop where we experiment. We’ve so far had 96,000 farmers participate in this program, which is a combination of training focused on post-harvest handling and storage, and work with the private sector to establish the supply chain for hermetic or airtight storage solutions. Farmers are offered the opportunity to purchase these – they’re not given away. About 95 percent of the farmers who have taken the training have purchased hermetic bags, plastic silos or stainless steel silos, which bring loss from 40-50 percent in the months that follow the harvest down to less than 1 percent.

The theme behind all of our work is to move farmers from subsistence to surplus.

Women & Girls Hub: Why are women particularly affected by post-harvest loss?

Rierson: Women produce, store and prepare most of the world’s food, and in sub- Saharan Africa represent up to 80 percent of the farming labor force. Yet far too many social and economic barriers continue to prevent women from accessing productive assets, resources, technology and the services required to reduce post-harvest losses, to preserve crop quality and quantity, and to access markets.

We’ve made a very deliberate attempt to ensure that women are involved in all aspects of the project. Thus far, 65 percent of the participants have been women. In participating households, the level of income has tripled on average. Women are also the primary labor force for preparing food for families. In our surveys, 98 percent of the women who had participated said they had a substantial reduction in their daily work duties because these new storage units eliminate the arduous task of cleaning and shelling cereals before each meal. Instead of hours, it now takes minutes to withdraw the grain from the food storage units. It really increases the level of freedom for women to leave their homes and pursue other activities.

Women & Girls Hub: How is aflatoxin a problem?

Rierson: Aflatoxin contamination is a huge problem across Africa. It’s been reported by the World Health Organization to be one of the most carcinogenic substances known to man and is the leading cause of cancer, primarily liver cancer, in Africa. Aflatoxins are also a major cause of stunting. Alfatoxins are an odorless, tasteless fungus or mold that naturally occurs on the ground. Farmers who dry their crops on the ground, as opposed to using a drying tarp, automatically pick this up. If you feed it to livestock, the aflaxtoxin becomes fixed in the tissue of the livestock and the only thing that removes it from the food chain is the human liver.

We’ll be starting a longitudinal study that tracks 700 families over the years to see what happens when you reduce the level of aflatoxin contamination in food. The longer term impact of removing aflatoxins from the food chain promises to have a massive health benefit alongside the nutritional benefit for rural farming families.

Women & Girls Hub: What are the biggest challenges the project faces?

Rierson: First is building awareness. We’re asking farmers to commit to spending on a promise. Until they see their neighbors having success with it, they are understandably skeptical that they will have more food for their families and more income. But there’s been a drastic increase in word of mouth: for about every one farmer who’s already using it, three want it. Our objective by the end of 2018 is to have reached a million farmers.

Another challenge is to reduce the taxation level on these silos. Right now, in Uganda it’s 18 percent. We’re optimistic that the government will drop that because to get the price point down to where farmers can easily access this is absolutely a priority.

Third, the distribution networks in the countryside in Uganda and in many other countries across Africa are very underdeveloped. We’re doing our best to try to build up the private sector – the networks who actually distribute agricultural inputs, seeds, fertilizers, tools and hermetic storage units – so that they can take this and achieve massive scale that even WFP could only dream about.

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