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Face-to-face interview on Food Waste in Africa 2

Food production must clearly increase significantly to meet the future demands of an increasing and more affluent world population. Considering the number of people starving worldwide – 925 million in 20101 – and the growing population – 9 billion people by 2050 – the subject of food losses and waste has become one of utmost concern. Is Africa prepared to face this challenge? Read the face-to-face interview with Robert Van Otterdijk (FAO) and the Britain activist Tristram Stuart.

What do we mean by “food losses and waste losses”? Is there a convergence in the International community on how these concepts/problems should be defined?

Robert Van Otterdijk: With the term Food losses we refer to food products, produced for human consumption, that never reach the consumer. The reasons are related to a failure in their production cycle. After they have been harvested they get spoilt and lost for some reason and they never reach their final product stage. Food waste refers to finished food products, destined to human consumption, that are thrown away (mostly by retailers and consumers) without being consumed. The definition of the problem is quite simple, and widely accepted.

Tristram Stuart: The phrase “food losses” is currently being used to describe the food that is inadvertently lost, damaged or rots, primarily owing to a lack of agricultural infrastructure in developing world countries. This is distinguished from “food waste” which is associated primarily with attitudes of negligence and economic forces that result in quasi-deliberate ‘choices’ that result in food waste. In reality, the distinction between these two is blurred. However, it is a useful distinction because broadly speaking the solutions to these two types of wastage are very different. Tackling the problem of post-harvest losses among some of the world’s least wealthy farmers requires appropriate investment in agriculture, ensuring that farmers have adequate storage facilities to safeguard their crops. This will help get quality food to markets in places where it is needed most, at the same time as enhancing on-farm incomes.

In Europe the emphasis is definitely on “waste losses”, while in Africa prevails the notion linked to “food losses”, with special reference to the post-harvest phase. Heavy losses are accounted for even before harvesting, with very serious consequences upon the yield of cultivated land. As an expert of problems linked to foodstuff and with a deep knowledge of Africa, what lessons is it possible to draw from the techniques that have been applied so far to minimize post-harvest losses and which are, in your opinion, the weak points?

Robert Van Otterdijk: Technology to reduce postharvest losses is widely available, also for poor farmers. The main weakness however is the proper use and management of the technology, as well as the application of ‘quality management tools’, like ‘good manufacturing practices’. That is the training that needs to be provided to the users.

Tristram Stuart: Take the example of maize in Zambia: it provides 68 percent of the population’s food calories and 76 percent of the income of smallholder farms. And yet inadequate resources have been aimed at post-harvest infrastructure to protect it.  A study in 2009 revealed that 96 percent of stored maize contained toxic fuminosins, which result from the growth of mold. A fifth of the samples also contained up to 10 times the government’s recommended safe limit of aflatoxins, produced by Aspergillus fungi, which inhibit growth in children and livestock and cause cancer. In several African countries, a shocking 98 percent of the population have aflatoxin in their blood in concentrations sometimes many times higher than those allowed by regulations in the European Union and the United States. This is caused almost exclusively by consuming moldy food. The problem comes down to the simple lack of facilities for storing grain so that it remains dry and free from vermin infestations. Without the introduction of capital-intensive western-style grain stores, there is a great deal that smallholders can be helped to do to prevent such dramatic damage to their harvests. Smoke, mechanical means of cleaning stores, and chemical insecticides can be used to reduce the risk of infestation. There are even notable disparities in the performance of different types of local structure, with better results coming from bamboo structures or when bags are used in combination with a secondary container such as a steel drum surrounded by mud or bricks.  Donor organizations have been helping to implement the Zambian government’s ambition to reduce significantly the problem of post-harvest losses.

Projects elsewhere in Africa have demonstrated the cost-effectiveness of measures to prevent post-harvest losses. One project in Guinea achieved dramatic reductions in aflatoxin exposure in subsistence farming communities by instigating a set of simple, affordable procedures to prevent fungal growth on stored groundnuts, an important food crop in the region. Farmers were shown how to sort groundnuts by hand, eliminating any that were moldy or damaged. Instead of being dried on the ground, which can be a source of humidity, groundnuts were dried in the sun on locally produced natural-fiber mats. Farmers learned how to judge the completeness of sun drying: shake the kernels to listen for the free movement of the dried nuts. Rather than using plastic or other synthetic bags for storage, which promotes humidity, natural-fiber jute bags were used and were stored on wooden pallets rather than on earthen floors, and insecticide was sprinkled under the pallets to kill pests.  In villages following these straightforward post-harvest measures, aflatoxin exposure was more than halved and the proportion of individuals whose blood was completely free from aflatoxins was 10 times greater than in control villages where farmers were left to follow their normal practices. The cost of all the post-harvest procedures combined came to $50 per farmer, a large sum in a country where average annual income is $1,100, but costs could almost certainly be brought down and should be set against the very substantial gains in terms of health, nutrition, and farm income.

Another problem that strikes quite hard the agricultural producers in Africa concerns the conservation and the transformation of harvested goods. Could you mention actions and initiatives that you believe that have had positive outcomes for African countries where you worked?

Robert Van Otterdijk: As I said, the technology of preservation and processing is known and available. It is the marketing that should make the technology worthwhile. First of all the farmer should know the market for the products that he plans to grow. He shouldn’t grow what he can’t sell. Once again he should preserve and process the products that the market demands. It would also be important to apply ‘good manufacturing practices’ and then market the products in the best possible way, using proper and attractive packaging.

Tristram Stuart: Dairy produce is highly susceptible to waste owing to a lack of technology such as refrigeration and pasteurization on farms and in markets. In Zambia, the Japanese government, Care International, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, in collaboration with local businesses and stakeholders, have helped establish rural milk collection centers. Smallholder cattle producers who had never engaged in milk trade can now deliver their surplus milk to the collection centers, which are equipped with cooling facilities that allow the milk to be sold on the market to processors and ultimately to create a self-sustaining business that increases farmers’ income and the availability of locally produced milk. In East Africa and the Near East alone, milk losses amounted to $90 million in 2004; in Uganda they account for 27 percent of all milk produced. Provision of modest levels of training and some equipment has the potential to raise income for farmers and improve local diets, and it would remove the need to import dairy products into the region: dairy imports in the developing world as a whole increased by 43 percent between 1998 and 2001, which is could be significantly reduced just by solving the problem of post-harvest losses.

Among food experts there are those who maintain that large quantities of food that are wasted and squandered in Western countries could be used to decrease the alimentary shortages that afflict so many people in Africa. What is your opinion on this approach ?

Robert Van Otterdijk: I don’t consider sending discarded food products to Africa as a sustainable solution. It gives a wrong signal to both sides. The food waste in the West should be stopped the resources should be shared with developing countries.

Tristram Stuart: I think this question puts the issue in a slightly misleading context. The argument I have made is absolutely not that rich countries should be sending their leftovers to poor countries to help feed the hungry. This is an obviously spurious connection to make. However, it is clear that in recent years, notably 2008 and 2012, there has been a global squeeze on the supply of internationally traded food commodities which has forced an upward pressure on prices and contributed to volatility. When prices rise in this way, poor people in Africa and Asia can no longer buy enough food to sustain a healthy diet. Rich countries currently buy on the world market millions of tonnes of those very same commodities, and sequester that food in their rubbish bins. If they had not bought it and wasted it, and it had instead remained on the world market, ordinary people, including those in poor countries in African and Asia, could have bought that food to eat and the price would be more likely to be more affordable and more stable. It is in this way that rich consumers have an indirect, though nevertheless real, impact on the world’s hungry people. The entire world’s food system is connected, and waste in one place will exert pressure on supplies, on resources, and on land which will have a knock-on effect on the system. It is of course vital not to oversimiplify this argument. No sane person is arguing that this is the magic wand that can solve the world’s food problems. Obviously there are local circumstances, including poverty, political problems, war, water scarcity, natural disasters that can cause hunger, and none of these can be tackled in isolation. What is clear, however, is that global food availability will necessarily be affected by the squandering of one third of the entire world’s food supply as is currently happening. This waste is a tragedy, but it is also a fantastic opportunity: we can increase food availability and decrease environmental impact by eating and enjoying food rather than throwing it away!

Lack of comprehensive African strategy to reduce food loss remains to be a major challenge for solid cooperation between African countries. What do you think are the major roadblocks towards a comprehensive African food loss management strategy?

Robert Van Otterdijk: A comprehensive strategy should include national and regional policy formulation and implementation, for instance with regard to intra-regional trade of food products; training of institutions on food loss prevention strategies; regional exchange and sharing of information, good practices, success stories and experiences, by actors and stakeholders in the food supply chains.

Tristram Stuart: Money is a restricting force always. But the voice of small scale farmers has often been ignored. It is here that some of the greatest gains could be made.

Post-harvest loss contributes the largest share of total food-loss in most African countries. It, in turn, is defined by the poor transport and storage technology used by farmers. Why do you think is there little investment in such kinds of technologies, if the demand is there?

Robert Van Otterdijk: The ‘investment climate’ is not conducive. For example, investment in storage structures is only feasible if the supporting infrastructure is in good order: roads, electricity, communication networks, fuel supply. Also, the economies of scale are not always achieved, to make storage of significant size profitable. Organizations of farmers to upscale their supply would be a solution.

 Tristram Stuart: I don’t have anything more to say.

In Africa, farmers, stockbreeders, hunters and fishermen are continuously confronted by the problem of losses because they often use archaic food conservation techniques, such as old drying processes, smocking, etc. Do you think that International organizations such FAO do enough to face this problem?

Robert Van Otterdijk: Technology is often not the problem; it is the management capacity, and quality systems that make technology work. In many of its field projects, FAO establishes ‘Farmer Business Schools’ and ‘Demonstration and Training Centres’, where various technologies are being piloted and displayed, for purposes of training, technology development, and for users to choose the technology that works best for them.

Tristram Stuart: Investment in post-harvest technology has declined in the past three decades. Despite the World Food Conference declaring post-harvest loss reduction a development priority in 1974, and a U.N. resolution the following year that called for a 50-percent reduction in post-harvest losses over the following decade, this still remains a vastly underfunded dimension of the development process. Foreign aid dedicated to improving developing-world agriculture fell globally from 20 percent of official development assistance in the early 1980s to 3 or 4 percent by 2007. And only 5 percent of investment in research and the promotion of agricultural improvement is directed at reducing post-harvest losses. As the FAO declared, “It is distressing to note that so much time is being devoted to the culture of the plant, so much money spent on irrigation, fertilization and crop protection measures, only to be wasted about a week after harvest.” However, there has been a recent encouraging trend to the contrary as food loss avoidance is increasingly seen as an opportunity to increase food availability without increasing burdens on resources and the environment.

Besides technological impediments and handicaps, all over the African continent food losses are made even worse by armed conflicts, long periods of drought and the geographic isolation of many African countries that have no access points to the sea. What strategies should be adopted to overcome these problems and, on a more general level, to guarantee food self-sufficiency in Africa?

Robert Van Otterdijk: Promotion of national, sub-regional and regional trade of food products, in order to provide faster access to food products everywhere in the continent, and to reduce imports of food products that are being produced locally.

Tristram Stuart: Food security obviously depends on a host of geopolitical forces; so clearly addressing post-harvest technology on its own will not guarantee food security. People also need to live in a stable political and social context, with adequate freedoms and access to basic necessities. Environmental degradation both on a local and global level is also jeopardising the long-term wellbeing of people across the world, often most acutely in Africa. This should be treated as an urgent problem, requiring swift and decisive international action to slow down and ultimately stop the onslaught that human economic forces are wreaking on the planet’s remaining wild places, which are vitally important for the preservation of all species on this planet, including our own.

Interview coordinated by Joshua Massarenti (, in collaboration with Alexis Kalambry (Les Echos du Mali), Momet Mathurin (Le Confident, CAR), Ousseini Issa Djibo (Le Républicain, Niger) and Getachew Alemu (Addis Fortune, Ethiopia).

© Addis Fortune (Ethiopia), Les Echos (Mali), Le Républicain (Niger), Le Confident (Central African Republic) and (Italy)

This article is published in the framework of an editorial project supported by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) in the framework of Brussels Development Briefings, but does not necessarily reflect the views of the this organisation.


Tristram Stuart – Food waste Researcher, Consultant and Campaigner; United Kingdom

Tristram Stuart is the winner of the international environmental award, The Sophie Prize 2011, for his fight against food waste. Following the critical success of Tristram¹s first book, The Bloodless Revolution (2006), Tristram has become a renowned campaigner, working in several countries to help improve the environmental and social impact of food production. His latest international prize-winning book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (Penguin, 2009), revealed that Western countries waste up to half of their food, and that tackling this problem is one of the simplest ways of reducing pressure on   the environment and on global food supplies. Tristram set up the Feeding the 5000 ( event and campaign, where 5000 members of the public were given a free lunch using only ingredients that otherwise would have been wasted. Held twice in Trafalgar Square (2009 and 2011), replica events have since been held internationally. Tristram continues to work with a range of NGOs, governments, and private enterprises internationally to tackle the global food waste scandal.

Robert van Otterdijk – Agro-Industry Officer, Rural Infrastructure & Agro-Industries Division, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Mr Robert van Otterdijk is a food technologist (MSc), graduated in 1985 from the Wageningen Agricultural University in The Netherlands. He worked first in the Dutch food industry in quality assurance and research and development, after which he joined the Food & Agriculture Organization of the UN in 1989, on projects on post-harvest and food technology in Ghana (West Africa) and Tonga (South Pacific). In 1995 he joined the Swedish Cooperation Sida funded field project in Zambia on processing and commercialization of root & tuber crops. When this project was concluded he returned to the private sector as quality assurance manager in Lusaka, Zambia working in procurement, processing and export of paprika. In 2002 he joined the FAO again, as agro-industry officer of the Regional Office for Africa, in Accra, Ghana. After six years he moved to FAO Headquarters in Rome in the Agro-Industries Division. His main responsibilities remained field projects on agro-industrial development in Africa. He is currently leading FAO’s Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction under the name of ‘Save Food’.

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  1. C KANAMPIO says:

    this is a must read and training required in Kenya.The commodities i see wasted that could feed a school for a whole term to taake but an example is sympathising.A lady at the market would rather throw away food that they think “is bad” than give a street child in dire need of food.Can we get this in Kenya – through the NGOs adn connected to the government?

  2. massimo serventi says:

    Wastage of food, yes.
    I’d like to add : wastage of drugs. Read:

    The real fact is that more than 50% of drugs prescribed in Africa( and in most of Asia) is NOT NEEDED by patients. This is true especially in children care.
    It is possible to write that:
    a category of professionals(doctors/prescribers) derobe the community of the little money they have, this daily, all over, in towns and in rural areas.
    Never heard the litany: drugs are not sufficient? wrong, drugs could be sufficient if they were prescribed in a rational/professional way.
    Massimo Serventi

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