The perilous journey from farm to table
February 28, 2023
Across Sub-Saharan Africa, small scale farming is a large and important industry, putting healthy food on tables across the region and employing millions of people. But the journey from the green fields to the marketplace is far from smooth in many areas. Recent statistics show small scale farmers in Africa lose more than 30 per cent of their produce due to a lack of efficient infrastructure for storage, transportation, and packaging.
Spoilage of highly perishable fruits and vegetables is the most dramatic. In Tanzania for example, the Ministry of Agriculture estimates that 50 per cent or more of the tomato crop rots before it can be purchased. It’s a persistent problem that caught the attention of PhD researcher Evodius Waziri Rutta. He received his degree last September from Queen’s School of Environmental Studies and this November he published his findings in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.
"As researchers, we set out to identify and investigate societal problems and to find solutions that will have a positive impact on communities," says Dr. Rutta. "In this case, the horticultural sector is a critical part of the Tanzanian economy. The local fresh tomato sector alone employs around a million small-scale producers, with exports flowing to neighboring countries like Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and to the Middle East and Asia. But most Tanzanian farmers live in remote areas where access to electricity and cold storage facilities is very limited."
Small farms in off-grid areas often resort to traditional but inefficient practices like storing vegetables under the shade or covering them with dry grasses. But there is a promising solution at hand that is already having an impact in another African country. In Nigeria, some small-scale famers have access to specialized solar-powered cold storage units that have helped them save an estimated 5,000 tons of produce since 2018.
Yet, small farmers in Tanzania seem to know little about this innovation. Between March and June 2021, Dr. Rutta interviewed more than 50 farmers in villages where producing tomatoes is a primary source of income. He found most were open to the idea of solar powered storage technologies, but they lacked awareness of the availability of storage units and worried about the costs associated with installing and running them. The farmers were also apprehensive about how solar-powered technologies would work during heavy rainfall seasons, a time when they have a huge volume of tomato harvests.
Another concern brought up by the farmers is a socio-cultural preference across the region for non-refrigerated produce. Consumers may not understand that tomatoes from refrigerated facilities have the same quality, taste, and nutrients as fresh ones.
After the interviews, Dr. Rutta spoke to a range of experts from local government, solar companies, other private sector stakeholders, and organizations that fund agricultural programs in Tanzania to find potential solutions.
"Through this research, I set out to bring into clearer focus the issues these small independent farmers are facing as they try to efficiently produce food and ship it to market," says Dr. Rutta. "As I travelled the country and spoke to stakeholders, it became clear that it’s going to take public and private sector cooperation and creativity to create real change."
In his published study, Dr. Rutta recommends that governments help lead the way by promoting policies and programs to attract investment into solar-powered cold storage units and the creation of flexible payment plans to make the units affordable for farmers. At the same time, public education campaigns are needed to help reassure consumers of the health benefits of refrigerated fruits and vegetables.
"This study helps fill an important research gap and provides valuable insights for decision-makers involved in postharvest agriculture and renewable energy programs in Africa," says Dr. Rutta. "The barriers to the deployment of solar-powered cold storage technologies are significant but small-scale farmers are motivated to partner with others to ensure much more of their precious fresh produce makes it to the communities who want and need it."