KONDOA, Tanzania—Sixty-year-old Mwanahamisi Selemani is a farmer in Mnenia village, Kondoa district, in central Tanzania. She cultivates maize on a five-acre piece of land.
“It gives around 20 sacks, but last year I only planted three acres and harvested seven bags of maize,” said Selemani, a mother of three grown children.
Even with a modest output, however, a major challenge facing local farmers like Selemani has been proper storage of grains so that they aren’t lost to pest infestation. So, the 2013 introduction of hermetic grain storage technologies—which include the use of airtight storage sacks—created a sigh of relief among smallholder farmers.
“Before this new storage technology, I used to store my grains in plastic bags. But they weren’t good enough because I had to buy pesticides. Otherwise, the grains would be damaged by weevils,” Selemani recalled.
The bags, she said, would last for only three months and farmers would be forced to buy new ones. In addition, the use of pesticides was harmful to human health, and she feared for her children’s health, she said.
“But the new technology has helped us save on costs, as well as deal with the health risks associated with insecticides. We do not need to use chemicals with these bags.”
According to World Bank projections, food demand will increase by at least 20 percent globally over the next 15 years.
The biggest demand for food will be in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as South Asia and East Asia. In 2016, the World Bank further estimated that one in nine people were food-insecure.
However, analysts argue that more food is going to waste as a result of poor storage facilities in developing nations.
Globally, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 1.3 billion tons of food are lost every year. This translates to about a third of the world’s food produced for human consumption.
For Amina Hussein, a 58-year-old mother of four, subsistence farming is her only source of livelihood. Like Selemani, she has been cultivating maize on her five-acre piece of land in Mnenia village and has faced persistent problems with storing her harvest.
Previously, Hussein would lose an average of $100 every harvest season, partly due to buying pesticides to preserve her maize. Now, the new hermetic sacks have cut that cost.
“We are not incurring the huge costs anymore and we do not need to buy chemicals to preserve our maize,” Hussein said, with a smile.
To facilitate the adoption of the new technologies, farmers organize themselves into groups. Hussein chairs one of these groups in her village.
“Once we’ve harvested, we dry the maize and then preserve them in the new bags,” she said, referring to the hermetic storage sacks, which are also locally produced.
The airtight sacks ensure that the grains remain fresh over a long period of time. They also help deal with health concerns by eliminating the use of chemicals in fumigating the grains.
In Tanzania, 85 percent of the population live in rural areas. Smallholder farmers constitute the majority of the population.
Analysts say post-harvest loss reduces the income of smallholder farmers by 15 percent. This is a major concern particularly for grains such as maize, which form the base for nutrition and income for people in the rural areas.
“We know that farmers work hard and spend a lot in acquiring seeds, so when they incur these losses ranging between 15 to 40 percent, this is not a small percentage,” said Eliabu Philemon Ndossi, a senior program officer with Tanzania’s Ministry of Agriculture.
“We call upon smallholder farmers to embrace these new technologies in order to preserve their produce.”
Researchers from the University of Zurich have recently conducted a survey in Tanzania to assess how cutting post-harvest losses in food grains improves food security and increases income levels among farming households.
“Being able to safely store food grains for a longer time, smallholder farmers gain autonomy on storing their harvest for their families’ consumption, and when to sell surplus on the markets,” said Matthias Huss, the coordinator of the research project.
Improved storage may also be linked to food prices, as seasonal price fluctuations can be reduced if not all produce hits the market at the same time, according to the research team.
For farmers like Hussein, even a modest cut in grain losses can mean more food for their children, and more cash for the family.