Talking about food loss and food waste with Dr Christopher Mutungi, IITA Food Technology Specialist

29 September 2020

By 2050, the world’s population is estimated to increase to 9 billion people. To feed the increasing population, agriculture production needs to more than double. While agricultural stakeholders are thinking of how to produce the needed food, the current food loss and waste along the food systems need to be curbed to secure food production. Thus, in support of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in marking the first International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Food Waste, IITA Food Technology Specialist, Dr Christopher Mutungi was interviewed by Gloriana Ndibalema, Communication Assistant, both based at the IITA offices in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on how IITA is addressing food loss.

A youth provides services to farmers in a rural setting (Photo: C. Mutungi/IITA).
A youth provides services to farmers in a rural setting (Photo: C. Mutungi/IITA).

What is food loss?
First, it’s important to understand the extent of postharvest loss and food waste; it’s not just what people perceive as quantity lost. It includes quality loss in terms of nutrition value and captures the economic loss in terms of lost opportunity because farmers cannot make money or have food because what they have produced is lost or gone to waste.

How does food waste differ from food loss?
Food waste is more of a social issue, in the sense that people have the food, but do not consume it because they perceive it as not appropriate either by making a wrong choice or other social reasons. This happens more in the developed world. We have food waste in Tanzania, especially in the urban areas; for example, in restaurants or meetings, people are served with large portions of food and they end up leaving half on the plate.

How much food is lost in the world and Tanzania?
Globally the figure is between 30% and 40%. Tanzania’s food loss is about 25%, which occurs during postharvest. During storage, 15% of the produce is lost, and this is often caused by insect damage.

How is IITA intervening in the postharvest loss challenge?
Our target now is to deliberately examine loss in crops that make the food basket (cereals, legumes) driven by the infrastructure, facilities used, and capacity for storing the produce. The big concern are the timelines on harvesting and operations around harvesting. Farmers use cumbersome and time-wasting technologies. Therefore, the technologies that we are disseminating are those that help farmers to collect their produce and store it quickly, reducing the time crops are subjected to the damaging effects of bad weather and biological pests. We promote technologies that include collapsible dryers, motorized shellers, and improved air-tight storage containers. We promote them as a package; the expectation is that once you bring these together, you can reduce the losses by as much as 90%.

How do these postharvest loss technologies benefit the community?
When we introduced the motorized shellers in some villages, we went back to learn how they are benefiting from this technology. It was interesting to find out that the technology creates more free time for households to spend with their families. As mothers spent more time with their families, children ate more frequently and nutrition improved. Also, farmers used some of their free time to engage in vegetable and other crop production. Technologies that improve time availability also translate to more productivity in other areas.

Some farmers have turned the motorized shelling machine into a business opportunity where they provide shelling services within their communities, improving income while reducing food loss.

Rural women (Kongwa District, Tanzania) use a low-cost maize thresher run by a diesel engine. The technology reduces labor needs by 77% and frees 90% of time spent in manual shelling for other income-generating activities or household duties (Photo: C. Mutungi/IITA).
Rural women (Kongwa District, Tanzania) use a low-cost maize thresher run by a diesel engine. The technology reduces labor needs by 77% and frees 90% of time spent in manual shelling for other income-generating activities or household duties (Photo: C. Mutungi/IITA).

How do you commercialize the technologies to the farmers?
Generally, we work with the private sector, companies that manufacture the technologies, or companies that source the technologies from the manufacturers in Asia or China. We work with farmers’ groups or producers where we demonstrate the use of the technologies, examine the performance, and validate them. Then we link them with the suppliers and other public and private sector players. Tanzania has strong institutions tied to mechanization like the Centre for Agriculture Mechanization and Rural Technology (CAMARTECH), which study the needs of farmers in terms of mechanization and produce a prototype. CAMARTECH also helps to improve farmers’ challenges in using prototypes.

We also use postharvest loss management as business opportunities for youth. For example, webring on board youth groups like local artisans and mechanics who have basic skills in mechanization; they act as service providers when machines break down and sell spare parts. Motorists who provide transport services see opportunities to use a motorized mechanical sheller to offer shelling services to farmers.

What are the effects of food loss?
If farmers produce a certain amount of food but end up losing some, they do not only miss their target, but they also run out of food or run short of some resources to generate income. In the thinking of many farmers, they will want to expand new land spaces and ecosystems to produce more to compensate for what they have lost, and that has a negative impact on the environment.

How critical is it to address postharvest loss during this COVID-19 pandemic?
I want to look at the post-COVID-19 situation because I am optimistic that we are coming out of it. We have seen the need to have a surplus at both community and national levels. The institute should now invest in research or action that improves the capacity of farmers and other players in the value chain to preserve produce. One area that is completely lacking in sub-Saharan Africa is processing. We have different crops including cereals, vegetables, roots, and tubers. We must now put effort into processing to stabilize the supply of the produce. We should be able to convert the produce in a form that can stay on the shelves for longer periods. That’s when we can say that we are secure—when we have enough stocks to take us through periods of uncertainty.

When we enter a postharvest discourse, we must look at it from the systems perspective. We can reduce the progression of climate change and what has happened by cutting down food production in new ecosystems through proper use of what we have. If we fail to control food losses and waste, it is a misuse of resources that pushes farmers into a more vicious circle of poverty.