Exploring Sub-Saharan Africa's Issues with Food Loss in Sub-Saharan Africa
Reviewing sub-Saharan Africa's problems with food loss, discussing drivers, impacts, and possible mitigation strategies.
Nearly 10% of the world’s population is affected by world hunger. The World Food Programme (WFP) puts the current estimate at 345 million, twice the number recorded in 2020. Looking at these figures, it begs the question of why so much food continues to be lost or wasted across several world regions. If there are not enough food resources, why are the available ones being lost?
Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) recorded the highest percentage of food loss in 2020. At 21.4%, the food loss in SSA surpassed those of certain Asian, European, and American regions. At the same time, the SSA region’s largest country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, has the highest population of people suffering from emergency hunger levels – WFP puts the figures at 26 million. So what is the Sub-Saharan African region doing wrong in terms of managing food resources?
This article explores the key drivers of food loss in Sub-Saharan Africa and the impact on the economy and environment. It also investigates the current strategies being implemented to combat food loss and its effects on the SSA region.
What Are the Major Drivers of Food Loss in Sub-Saharan Africa?
A lot of the food loss recorded in sub-Saharan Africa occurs after food crops are harvested, and before they reach retail markets. Commonly called post-harvest loss (PHL), this phenomenon poses a formidable challenge, not just to the SSA region, but also to the global economy. A 2011 World Bank report estimated the worth of grains lost annually following harvests in SSA to be worth 4 billion USD, the equivalent of the annual caloric requirement to feed 48 million people, a number slightly larger than the entire population of Spain. From then till now, not much has changed.
The FAO estimates that food loss and waste cause annual global economic losses of roughly US$940 billion. More specific to the SSA region, 1.3 billion tons of food produced for human use annually are lost or wasted according to APHLIS (African Post Harvest Losses Information System). We must explore the factors driving post-harvest loss and its significant debilitating effects in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Inadequate Storage Infrastructure
Much of the food loss levels recorded in the SSA region have been attributed to poor storage practices. Many storage facilities in this region are dilapidated and pest-infested or have insufficient capacity to handle local production. Ultimately, these storage conditions become one of the biggest contributors to post-harvest loss, both in terms of quantitative and qualitative loss of food produce.
In many regions, up to 20% of the food produced is lost to mice and other pests, as well as general degradation before it reaches the customer because of inadequate food storage facilities. An academic study that surveyed Kenyan farmers reported total weight losses from rodent infestations ranging from 2.2 to 6.9% in shelled maize grain and from 5.2 to 18.3% in dehusked cobs.
Unfavourable Climate Conditions
African countries are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The far-reaching effects of climatic conditions also affect food production in SSA, with climate elements such as humidity, precipitation, temperature, and altitude having different kinds of effects on food production. For instance, academic researchers from the University of Minnesota have reported that a 1% increase in humidity increases PHL by 0.07%. Elements such as temperature and altitude also affect PHL in similar manners.
Reports of food loss due to unfavourable climate conditions are also prevalent – according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), recent severe drought in several sub-Saharan African nations has resulted in losses of 20 to 60% in livestock populations and also severely reduced maize production. The World Bank also reports that Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia account for over 80% of the world population most in danger from crop failures and famine brought on by climate change.
Other factors also pull significant weight, including poor harvesting practices, mycotoxin contamination, lack of efficient transportation systems, and improper packaging of food produce. However, it appears that climate and storage are the most significant factors because they appear to encompass and influence some of these other factors.
Impact of Food Loss in Sub-Saharan African Countries
Financially, post-harvest losses have a detrimental impact on customers, farmers, and the whole SSA economy. They essentially reduce the chance for farmers to expand and bolster their sources of revenue. For instance, a lot of small-scale farmers in the SSA region risk losing up to 40% of their seasonal harvest due to insufficient storage facilities. Knowing this, most of them sell their produce almost immediately after harvest, usually at a time when prices are low due to overproduction.
Such conditions do not allow for profit maximization, and in many cases, may reduce the resources available for farmers to reinvest in farming activities. On a larger scale, the worth of food lost across several SSA countries is high. A key example here is the World Bank’s record of annual food loss in the SSA region worth 4 billion USD.
The environmental impact of food loss is also not to be overlooked. Besides massive economic effects, PHL has been linked to increased concentrations of methane in the environment. According to UNEP’s 2021 Food Waste Index report, food loss and waste contribute up to 8-10% of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) globally, coming third after the United States and China, with an estimated carbon footprint of 3.3 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent.
Moreover, environmental resources are typically used up during food production. When much of this produce is lost or wasted, it means that considerable amounts of the earth’s natural resources are being used up with nothing to show for it. Continuous food loss in the SSA also severely impacts the success of the Agenda 2030 of Sustainable Development Goals which include achieving improved nutrition and food security
What Strategies Can Combat Food Loss in Sub-Saharan Africa?
Currently across the African continent, there is insufficient funding to support investigations and data collection to better inform the reduction of food loss in Africa. Nonetheless, some strategies in play currently produce some positive outcomes.
For instance, African groups conducting agricultural research, including several participants in the prestigious CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research), have been concentrating on strategies to minimize crop losses. Initiatives to investigate and reduce food waste in developing nations have also received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle and the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, as well as from groups in Europe and other places.
On a smaller scale, farmers in the SSA region are also learning practices to better preserve their food produce. For instance, a small women’s group in Arusha, Tanzania, is learning to preserve their fruit produce by turning them into jams and selling them. Of course, these groups have a lot to learn before they can carry out these practices on a large scale. However, it’s a step in the right direction.
The bottom line…
Food loss in Sub-Saharan Africa results in severe economic losses and environmental degradation, and some of the larger contributors are unstable climate conditions and poor storage capacities. However, with the world’s increasing focus on minimizing food loss and waste to achieve sustainable development goals, a favourable turn of events might be possible in the foreseeable future.