Post-Harvest Loss Dims Agricultural Hope

Endowed with abundant natural resources, Ethiopia has one of the most diverse agro-ecological configurations in the world. With 74.3 million hectares of arable land spread over 18 major agro-ecological zones at altitudes ranging from 148 meters to 4,620 meters above sea level, the country’s diversity makes it suitable for growing over 100 types of crops. Agriculture forms the biggest component and bedrock of Ethiopia’s economic development, contributing to about 32.7 Pct of the country’s GDP and 65.6 Pct of employment. With 85 Pct of Ethiopia’s 105 million people living in rural areas, the agriculture sector primarily consists of smallholder farmers who make their living from less than one hectare of land. The agricultural sector has reported considerable growth rates over the past decade as the result of an estimated doubling in the use of modern farm inputs, rapid expansion of arable land, increased labor productivity, government investments in the extension system, and an improved road network. The light of hope in the farming fields, however, is dimmed by startling losses following harvests, writes EBR’s Bamlak Fekadu.

Ethiopia’s cool, showery highlands are an ideal environment for the production of grains such as  teff, barley, and wheat, unlike the hot, dry lowlands that are ill-suited for cropping these grains. More than 60 million people rely on the highlands for their supply of the two major staple foods – teff and wheat.  Still, production lags behind demand and the Government of Ethiopia spends hundreds of millions of dollars on wheat imports every year.

In a bid to curb dependency on foreign grain, the federal government has embarked on an ambitious scheme to increase irrigation-based wheat production as part of its overarching commitment to boost agricultural output. The scheme has shown encouraging results since it launched three years ago in tandem with the rollout of a large-scale cluster farming program.

The initiative kicked off in 2018 with support from the African Development Bank (AfDB), ICARDA, and other partners that work closely with the federal government to achieve its target for a fully wheat-sufficient Ethiopia by 2025.

The progress thus far led Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (Ph.D.) to express hope that Ethiopia will begin exporting wheat in the current fiscal year. During an address to parliament last June, he praised the “remarkable” growth exhibited by the grain export industry despite pressures that include the termination of AGOA privileges, among others.

Mandefro Nigussie, a state minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, backs the Prime Minister’s ambitions, saying that the majority of Ethiopia’s regions have promising potential for wheat production.

The State Minister maintains that the development project has full attention from the government, which offers logistical and technical support to irrigate wheat development zones in a coordinated manner. Efforts to replace wheat imports with domestic production have produced astounding results, according to the State Minister. He is confident that wheat exports are feasible in the near future.

 Ethiopia is the third-largest wheat-producing country in Africa, next to Egypt and Morocco. About 1.8 million hectares (ha) of land are dedicated to  farming wheat, with an estimated annual production of 50 million quintals. It evens out to an average productivity of 28 quintals per ha – a figure that has been improving constantly over the past 25 years but remains lower than the world average of 33 quintals per ha.

Despite the progress, there is still much work to be done. Wheat production for 2022/23 is projected at a record level of 5.7 million metric tons while corn production is forecasted at 10.2 million metric tons.

According to the Post, the global agriculture information network (GAIN) forecasts Ethiopian wheat consumption for 2022/23 to reach 7.38 million metric tons (MT), a near 2.9 Pct increase over 2021/22. The demand for wheat still oustrips production, and the country must import a projected 1.4 million tons to meet its domestic needs this  year. The figures or projected import volumes take into account the expansion of irrigated wheat in the low- and semi-low-land parts of the country.

Information garnered from a Ministry of Agriculture study portrays an even steeper hill to climb. Government data estimates that the country is only producing 4.6 million tons of wheat on 1.7 million hectares, involving over four million smallholder farmers and their families. It is not nearly enough to realize dreams of self-sufficiency, let alone exports.

Data from the International Maize & Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) reveals that the gap between wheat production and demand will cost over USD 600 million this year, as well as expose national food security to risks associated with price shifts in the volatile international grain market.

It is a reality in contrast with the administration’s renewed emphasis on developing the agricultural sector and ensuring food security. The authorities see small and large-scale irrigation development, availing financing for agricultural inputs, encouraging cluster farming, and reducing post-harvest losses as the keys to guaranteeing food security. Still, agricultural market linkages remain weak, while the use of improved seeds, fertilizers and pesticides is limited. The authorities, however, do not seem too fazed by the circumstances, instead doubling down on the belief that agriculture-led economic growth is the long-lasting solution to Ethiopia’s chronic poverty and food insecurity. The agriculture sector is expected to continue supporting the country’s goal to sustain economic growth, eradicate poverty, and reach middle-income status by 2025.

Besides, the government’s effort to realize inclusive growth along with food security, Post-Harvest Loss (PHL), and inadequate storage have become bold challenges limiting the country from further exploiting its agriculture potential both in the crop and livestock sub-sectors, alongside the commercialization of the agriculture sector.

According to Firealem Shibabaw, head of the Federal Cooperatives Commission, the country’s agricultural storage capacity sits at under five tons, with traditional granaries accounting for around 22 Pct of the total. The government, public enterprises, and private businesses own the majority of suitable grain storage space.

With a total capacity of 1,094,537 metric tons (MT), the Ethiopian Industrial Inputs Development Enterprise (EIIDE) leads the pack. The Ethiopian Trading Businesses Corporation (ETBC), formerly known as the Ethiopian Grain Trade Enterprise, holds warehouses capable of storing approximately 874,000 MT in the Amhara, Oromia, and Southern regions as well as the capital. The National Disaster Risk Management Commission (NDRMC) follows with a total storage capacity of 385,200 MT.

Private warehouse owners can hold more than 300,000 MT at properties located in urban areas such as Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, Shashamane, Gondar, and Mekelle.

“The country is losing 30 to 40 Pct of crop production and 30 to 50 Pct of fruit production as post-harvest loss due to a lack of adequate storage,” said Firealem. The Commissioner predicts that Ethiopia will need 18 million MT of agricultural storage over the coming decade.

Studies back Firealem’s claims about PHL. Research conducted by faculty at Jimma University in 2018 indicates that PHL caused over USD 840 million in losses that year alone. What’s worse; the losses were recorded in just four crop types – wheat, maize, sorghum, and haricot beans. The study, which covered 14 woredas in the Tigray, Amhara, Oromia, and Southern regional states and engaged farmers, harvesters, merchants, consumers, and researchers, concludes that PHL resulted in a 29 Pct loss of the period’s earnings totalling USD 2.84 billion. Needless to say, it is a huge sum.

Although federal authorities had targeted to cut PHL down to five percent by 2020, the loss estimates for the 2021 harvest year hiked sixfold compared to the figure from 2018, according to Ali Mohammed Ibrahim (Ph.D.), a professor of post-harvest management at Jimma University. He estimates the losses have a value of over USD 5.6 billion.

“The government’s ambitious plans to export wheat won’t be achievable unless it takes significant precautions against improper storage and post-harvest loss during cropping and later,” says Ali. “The annual average PHL is estimated to be over 12 million tons, of which tomato product losses range between 30 and 38 Pct.”

PHL is a pressing issue for the country’s top export commodity as well. Coffee exports brought in over USD one billion over the last financial year, but the volume could have been a lot higher, according to a report published by Feed the Future Ethiopia. It indicates that in 2021, post-harvest coffee loss meant that 434 kilos of the 1,067 kilos of green coffee squandered post-harvest were qualitative. The bulk of these losses were attributed to pests, moisture, mildew, other factors relating to both fieldwork and storage.

Still, taking into account all elements, including harvesting, drying, hulling, bagging, storage, odor contamination, and adulteration, which were reduced by 35 Pct, the report demonstrates an improved performance between 2018 and 2021.

The losses are exacerbated by a food system struggling with low levels of yield and productivity. Inefficient land management, the prevalence of rain-dependent farming, droughts, low or non-existent farm capitalization, and increasing levels of environmental degradation are all factors behind poor farm yields.

Government efforts to introduce cluster farming and mechanized agriculture have the potential to improve labor productivity and reduce losses, but progress is inching along slowly. Smallholder farmers primarily engage in labor-intensive, dispersed, and subsistence farming and are the intended audience for the cluster farming scheme. Cluster farming is hoped to boost productivity and make it easier for farmers to access markets by improving the quality and quantity of their products.

The Agricultural Transformation Institute (ATI), a government agency overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture, has developed and tested the cluster farming approach over the last three years. Its data indicates there are now 1.3 million farmers organized under 30,000 clusters spread across the country. Each cluster plants improved seeds simultaneously, using the same agro-ecologically specific fertilizers, benefiting from the same extension support, and harvests crops using machinery to minimize PHL.

Cluster farming encourages farmer specialization and aggregation to facilitate scaled production, according to Samuel Assefa (Ph.D.), an agronomist with over three decades of experience.

Farmlands are spatially organized in small plots with a national average of 0.65 ha, which is inefficient and hinders modern land management systems and environmentally-sound food production. The size of farmland plots is decreasing, driven by rapid population growth.

In many regions of Ethiopia, cluster farming for strategic crops has a positive impact on smallholder farmers’ production and market access. Although one of the important procedures required would be to medicate the soil damaged by high acidity, Samuel added that it needed to take precedence.

“Because of the poor quality of these food products, which exposes people to microbiological diseases, the loss is not just financial; it also has an impact on people’s health,” Samuel told EBR.

Despite the fact that mechanized farming and cold-chain storage are highly capital intensive, he recommends the adoption and expansion of such infrastructures in some rural areas.

Losses between harvest and the final consumer are also a significant issue. According to the Food & Agriculture Organization, PHL in developing countries can range from 15 to 50 Pct.

In Ethiopia, there are no cooling or storage facilities for small-scale fruit producers. However, large-scale producers (exporters) have refrigerated transport and storage facilities. The pre-cooling is done at the wholesaler’s level, but they precool by using ambient-temperature water and can remove only about 50 Pct of field heat. This is still too warm compared to the standard of removing 7/8ths of the field heat before product packaging or storage to increase shelf life, reduce losses, ensure quality, and ensure food safety. The Ethiopian Airlines Group remains the only entity in the country that operates a cold storage facility with a capacity of storing up to 336,000 tons.

Losses occur in all post-harvest activities such as handling, storage, processing, packaging, transportation, and marketing. For instance, fruits like avocado, mango, tomato, and the like require more careful handling and storage than grains.

“The losses extend throughout the value chain due to limited resources such as infrastructure, knowhow, and access to post-harvest technologies,” Ali explains.

One way to decrease post-harvest losses can be through “efficient supply chain management,” he told EBR.

Effective cold chain management from farm to retail is essential to reduce PHLand ensure food safety. There are several techniques available for temperature management, and the method used depends on the crop requirements and the local costs. Strategies for cold chain development should be adapted to specific commodity groups and to geographic and socioeconomic conditions.

According to Dawit Maru, deputy general manager at Maru Metal Industry, a business that built the capital’s first grain storage facility—often referred to as Gotera after the 20-meter tall metal silos—in 1975 E.C., collaboration among various stakeholders involved in the uninterrupted cold chain of a specific commodity is essential for success. Roads, electricity, public infrastructure, and a legal framework are examples of crucial services that governments can offer to support the development of the cold chain.

“Our company is currently manufacturing basic cold storage boxes for the Gambella fish market as well as refrigerating freight vehicles,” Dawit said.

The cold chain begins on the farm. Fresh produce is best harvested during the cooler times of the day, and bins of produce should be placed in the shade. Keeping produce in the shade can help reduce pulp temperature by 10 to 15°C.

“It has been more than nine months since our company received a foreign currency permit; yet, the FX pressure makes it difficult for us to meet the escalating demand. Currently, we are using stocks to operate,” he told EBR.

Lack of awareness, strategy, and shortage of trained manpower, as well as technological and financial problems, are among the main causes of the problem identified by the study.

Samuel Assefa recommends either establishing an independent office or expanding agricultural extension experts, who will be responsible for coordinating and following the issue, to minimize  losses.

It is advice that the authorities would do well to heed if the administration is to realize its dreams of a food-sufficient Ethiopia.EBR

11th Year • Jan 2023 • No. 114

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