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2 October 2015

Post-Harvest Losses – a low hanging fruit that no one wants to pick? Interview with William Lanier

Almost every article about food security starts with the statement that we will have to increase food production by at least 50% in order to be able to meet the future food demands of the planet’s booming population. What is quite often forgotten is the fact that reducing food waste and especially Post – Harvest Losses (PHL) can offer an easier, more cost-effective and environmentally friendly solution than many methods of agricultural intensification.

Post-Harvest Losses is a measurable financial or nutritional loss of the food produce. Financial aspect of PHL affects food availability and incomes of growers who loose part of their produce. It also affects food prices due to the fact that part of the production is simply removed from the supply chain. Additionally, all the water, energy, fertilizers and hard human labor used for growing the crops are wasted too. Meanwhile, the PHL in the countries most affected by food insecurity are estimated to be around 30%.

The nutritional aspect of PHL obviously affects the quality of food. With fruits and vegetable it is often the fact that the produce rots or gets damaged during transportation. The nutritional PHL of grains, like wheat or corn or ground nuts, are usually caused by aflatoxins – a fungi mold that lives in low levels of soil and thrives in warm moist storage conditions. It is highly carcinogenic and is linked to stunting, mental impairment and liver cancer. Infected cereal doesn’t pass quality control, so the farmers cannot make good profit from their produce. Development of aflatoxins can be reduced by a storage that allows controlling moisture and temperature. That is why proper storage of grains is essential for food security.

William Lanier works with Post-Harvest Losses of “dry, high calories”, the way he calls cereal grains. He came to Ghana as a volunteer and saw a window of opportunity for the promotion of storage facilities that are widely used in Canada and Australia, but have not yet been adopted in Africa. Soon after that, he set a small consulting firm called NeverIdle, and is now navigating through the agribusiness landscape of Ghana. He kindly agreed to have a chat about his business.

Q: What brought you to Ghana and how did you get the idea for your business?

WL: Before I came to Ghana I was a young farmer in southern Alberta [in Canada], then I went to study in Montana State University and stayed to work with Integrated Pest Management. After a long time at the university I volunteered to work for the Ghanaian Ministry of Food and Agriculture via a Canadian NGO. I worked there for a year; it was sort of to forget my old job and to figure out what to do next. That is when I started to see a lot of opportunity, I mean I was like: How can this be so bad after all the money and all the effort and all the support that comes to Ghana?

I started to look for the weak links in the chain, and I found ideas for two products. One is the geographical positioning systems (GPS) used in precision agriculture to avoid waste of fuel, pesticide, fertilizer and seeds. GPS tractor guidance is a big idea and has not yet caught on with Ghanaian growers. The second idea was a storage bin with a mobile utility storage. As a youth I worked in Australia on a farm and saw those bins, and I remembered about them while being in Ghana, they looked just perfect for grain storage, especially in conditions when farmers, especially women, do not own the land.

Q: Why do you think your service is needed?

WL: If a grower produces something and the government provides support with fertilizer and pesticides and they grow and they harvest, but then lose 30% of their produce, then all the investment and increased yields lack meaning. It is not a good business, not good agronomics and it is very hard on the communities and the ecosystems that bear the cost of production. Very low production makes the use of fertilizer and other inputs, senseless and even harmful because growers tend to overuse fertilizers when soil productivity goes down. A good farming is about getting as much as possible from the soil, while harming it as little as possible. If you do it correctly, farming is very sustainable and profitable.

Q: What is your product and how does it work?

WL: Women-growers can’t own the land, but they can own tractors and mobile storage facilities, and with a proper storage they can control their harvest and receive benefits from it. The storage is made of metal, is off the ground and under the roof, so it keeps the grains safe from the insects, rats, fungi, floods and wildfire. You can open the bottom of the bin so gravity moves the grain out, making it less labor intensive. You can also open the bin from the top for easy bulk loading and fumigate if you have a problem with insects.

There are stationary storage facilities and they are good and effective, but have no return on investment when they are not full. Stationary storage also requires rights to land and additional transportation costs. There are also trucks used for storage, but an eight-axel truck is expensive to park as a storage facility because it is made to move heavy loads.

The bins I offer are in the middle: when they are empty, they move, leaving the stationary facilities behind; when they are full they can be parked while the truck can go and do its work. This mobility quality makes it possible to position the storage in the desirable place in the supply chain.

One of the big problems with beans, maize, wheat and ground nuts are Aflatoxins. The two ways to stop aflatoxins are proper harvesting and proper storage. If you maintain low level of aflatoxins during harvesting and put the grains into bad storage, aflatoxin can increase and you can loose the value of your produce. If you do the same, but use a good storage, the level of Aflatoxins will not go up and you will maintain the quality.

Once you get the quality, you can store your harvest in a locked bin in a suitable location until the prices are good. So the growers get control over their business plan. The bin can also be moved to the market and become a processing facility to deliver the grains in whatever quantities are needed, and the money would go directly to the grower, avoiding the middle-man.

Q: How has it been going?

WL: It is going slowly. The predominant way of storage in Ghana is to put the cereals in sacks and place them in the warehouses. It is very profitable for technocrats because growers don’t have another option but to sell the grain to the traders for very low prices right after harvesting. That is why the benefits of the increased yields are not accumulating in the villages. I believe mobile storage is the solution to this situation, but the owners of warehouses do not benefit from it, even though Aflatoxins stop exports.

Q: Did you experience any unexpected outcomes or hidden causes of large PHL in Ghana?

WL: I have learned a lot about politics in Africa. One unexpected outcome I have encountered is the fact that growers with their own storage are politically scary for the technocrats. In my view, the situation is similar to the problem some governments have with Uber, despite the fact that the idea is very positive.

Another thing that I understood is that the issue of Aflatoxins needs to be approached from a health point of view. It may be is not as acute as Ebola, but Aflatoxin kills slowly or stunts children that are the future productive labor force. Now when I talk about PHL with politicians, I only talk about Aflatoxins and their adverse effect on health and I hope that it will make them change the approach to grain storage options in Ghana.

William Lanier is presenting at the First International Congress on Postharvest Loss Prevention. Go give him a handshake if you are at the same event!

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