Africa’s opportunity to ramp up the value of food

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As a global community, we are grappling with a difficult task: to ramp up food production without increasing greenhouse gas emissions and simultaneously reducing them further. Producing enough food to beat hunger is not enough. Now, we need more, affordable and nutritious food for more people, and we need to do it with a lighter footprint.

Currently, the technology to do this is simply not available at the scale required. And yet it is no secret that last year was the hottest on record, with temperatures exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius over a 12-month period for the first time. There is no way to build a more resilient world if it gets hotter. At the same time, tackling emissions cannot come at the cost of global hunger.

As we become precariously close to breaching temperature levels outlined in the Paris Agreement, our food systems are still responsible for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. And yet, at every stage of the food production process, from cultivation through to consumption, opportunities are being lost to tackle this problem.

UNEP recently published its Food Waste Index Report 2024, which finds that households across all continents wasted over 1 billion meals a day in 2022. At the same time, some 783 million people went hungry.

Waste not, want not 

As countries urbanize, food waste is only likely to get worse. In the global south, supporting farmers will have the greatest pay-off. A study of losses in five staple food value chains in six countries found that 60–80% of the total losses, including pre-harvest losses, occurred at the producer level.

In this publication, we explored how to achieve agricultural breakthrough, diving into seven technological areas. They call for a revamp in how our food is produced, how it is preserved and protected, how it is distributed and how to add value to it for less waste and more profit – specifically in the global south.

These transformations are not only possible, they are essential for a sustainable future. To understand the opportunities available to improve our food system, let’s take food waste in Africa as an example.

In Africa, waste problems in the food system do not really occur at the consumer level. On the contrary, consumers and businesses are often remarkably efficient in using up all waste products.

For example, by 2028, in sub-Saharan Africa, meat consumption is expected to be only 12.9 kilograms per person. Meanwhile, in the United States, meat consumption is expected to reach 100 kilograms per person, leading to other health problems such as obesity.

Instead of grappling with issues of over-consumption, people in Africa are more like to be dealing with reduced food intakes, failed crops, low incomes or climate-induced heat-stress in animals, with human health implications like stunting.

While advice in high-income countries is to find alternative proteins to address high meat consumption; in Africa adding value to food products to make them more profitable, climate-smart or nutritious is key.

In Kisumu, Western Kenya, fish farmers are being supported through various initiative to use every part of the fish, from fresh fish for sale in the market through to dried fish bones for export as animal feed. Food waste in Africa is rare or minimal, and this is why site-specific recommendations are key.

More value, less waste

In Africa, food waste is more likely to occur at the planting stage in the form of disease or crop failure induced by climate change impacts. Or, at the post-harvest stage, in the form of pest infestation due to lack of storage options and available markets for sale. Value-addition is therefore critical to reduce food waste in Africa.

Take beans, for example. On the one hand, beans are a rich source of protein. They are more affordable and available than meat for the average person. But on the other hand, they are vulnerable to conditions such as drought or pest and disease.

The value-addition potential in beans lies in making them more climate-resilient; better able to withstand pest and disease, or able to cook quickly, recuing the need for costly fuel like gas; or environmentally destructive fuel like firewood.

In Ethiopia, improved and drought-resilient white pea beans – known commonly as baked beans – can fetch farmers three times more income. Between 2006 and 2017, the value of Ethiopia’s white pea bean production rose from US$20 to US$120 million, making farmers more income while also putting more nutritious food on the table.

Food loss vs. food waste

When farmers have got their crop ready for market, they face more hurdles in storing it for long enough to make a good sale. Badly stored crops can succumb to pests, disease or worse – deadly aflatoxin, a toxin produced by fungus – linked to liver cancer and stunting.

Improving post-harvest storage can have major payoffs. In Tanzania, US$2 hermetically sealed bags reduced the proportion of severely food-insecure households by an average of 38% in the lean season and by 20% during the full seasonal cycle.

Food waste in the south translates into economic waste and nutrition loss. Wasted food leads to wasted opportunities to make struggling smallholder farmers money; or improve their food security and livelihood opportunities.

Increasing production of healthy and nutritious food without expanding agriculture into new lands, preventing further deforestation, is critical to reduce emissions. A report by the CGIAR System notes that global demand for rice will continue to increase from 479 million tons of milled rice in 2014, to between 536 million and 551 million tons in 2030, with little scope for expansion of agricultural land or irrigation.

In Benin, a rice parboiling system which improves rice quality with better physical and nutritional properties compared to traditional systems– increased incomes by US$40.80 per 100 kilograms of paddy rice, increasing women parboilers’ rice output, income, food security and reduced poverty.

Not a lost opportunity, yet

The agri-food sector is particularly vulnerable to climate change, with losses and damages occurring throughout the value chain due to extreme weather events like high temperatures, droughts, and floods. Small-scale farmers in the global south are especially at risk, and current efforts to adapt to climate change are not sufficient.

While there are currently no technologies that ramp up food production without ramping up emissions, supporting smallholders in the south is a critical part of the puzzle, in addition to adding value to food so that waste is cut.

This must be done together with local communities, and requires a holistic understanding of which foods are in demand where; how they can be cultivated, and distributed with local partners.

Investing in value-addition and post-harvest losses as food waste is more important now, because as Africa’s population becomes more affluent, so food waste will increase. There are opportunities to learn from mistakes already implemented elsewhere -and put in place solutions to support farmers and increase the value of food in the long-term.

 

Authors: Dr. Aditi Mukherji is a Director, Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Impact Action Platform of the CGIAR, specializing in adaptation in agri-food systems, groundwater governance, energy-irrigation nexus, and community management of water resources. Aditi is also a contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

Dr. Maya Rajasekharan is a Senior Director for Integrated Systems and Scaling at CGIAR and Managing Director of the Africa Region for the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. Maya coordinates the work of CGIAR Regional Integrated Initiatives, setting overall vision and strategy, and engagement with stakeholders.

 

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