An FAO report in (2004), estimates that a third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted across the global food system. There is an urgent need to efficiently store and preserve food, if we are to achieve food security in the continent.
The traditional storage techniques and preservation methods used by African farmers are small-scale, with a capacity of up to 2 – 3 tonnes. Many of these techniques have severe limitations, particularly in terms of durability and protection against rodent, insect and moisture damage (FAO, 1986). African farmers need to make use of efficient food storage and preservation methods if food security goals are to be achieved across the continent.
Food security is not the only advantage to be gained from efficient storage systems. Grain storage on smallholder farms in Africa can be a form of savings account, and can increase the farmer’s income from the sales of stored seed when other crops are out of season. If farmers in Africa can store and preserve their food efficiently they can sell them over a longer period of time, reducing the cycles of surplus and scarcity connected to the seasons.
Silos and solar dryers making food security that much easier
Of the many techniques of storage and processing available, the most efficient techniques that are suitable for the African market are metal silos for storage and solar dryers for preservation. Metal silos are used to store grains so that they are not left uncovered, thereby reducing the amount of grain spoiled by rain exposure and pest penetration (Proctor, 1994). Solar dryers on the other hand, helps process and preserve meat, fruit and vegetables efficiently so that they don’t rot. Dryers reduces the need for complex storage and simultaneously increase food safety by removing the water content and associatied contamination. (Heinz, 1995).
Metal silos, though usually considered too expensive for smallholder farmers in Africa to buy individually and thus only useful for storing large quantities of food, have proven useful on small scales as well. Farmers Bolivia, for example, have had long-term success with metal silo storage; 96% of the farmers who received silos improved their food security, reduced waste, and maintained the quality of the grain. The FAO also succeeded in introducing household metal silos in 16 countries across Asia, Africa, and South America (FAO, 2008).
Solar dryers are an efficient preservation technique in Africa because they can be used with all types of food (grain, fruit, vegetables, meat, and even cash crops) and they do not require extra energy from a fuel powered engine or battery. Drying in general is a fairly common practice in many parts of Africa, but it is typically done by spreading out the crop on the ground. This method has many problems such as spoilage due to rain, wind, dust, insects, etc.
Farmers can make solar dryers out of a variety of different materials, taking advantage of whatever is available at the time. They dry food in a clean, hygienic environment that reduces space requirements. They also require very little labour (about one hour a day or less) and yet can greatly increase the amount of high-quality food available.
Even a small price can be too much for smallholders
Most farmers in Africa are smallholders who have very little money to spare. They are often heavily in debt and cannot invest in these efficient storage and processing techniques. Providing low-cost means of preserving and storing food that will make Africa achieve food security and also increase their farmers’ incomes is therefore essential.
According to Balakrishnan (2006), solar dryers cost about $34 per unit of space (A typical 50 kg solar drying unit costs $1700). However since finance and training on the efficient use of the units is a challenge, it would be better managed by farmers’ cooperatives instead of individual farmers.
Each cooperative could own solar dryers and silos that would be shared among its members. This way, it becomes easier to purchase the units because the farmers can pool their resources. Each cooperative should have greater access to both needed capital and markets and would be fully trained on the use of the units, thereby increasing the efficiency of each dryer or silo (FAO, 2008).
Both metal silos and solar dryers can be adapted to fit a variety of local conditions. Metal silos can be constructed locally, similar to water tanks. Sheet metal and other materials needed for construction could be provided and subsidized by government agencies or the local private sector. Solar dryers require very little infrastructure beyond the cost of the unit itself, and can be beneficial to farms of any size.
Applying these suggestions and techniques will not only improve farmer’s incomes in Africa, but will indeed put Africa on track fpr achieving food security!
Photo: E. Gerald (FAO)