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Close to a million tons of food going to waste as Kenyans starve

By Dominic Omondi | September 14th 2021

Beans is one of the worst-hit with the country losing a fifth of the domestic supply. [Christopher Kipsang, Standard]

In 2020, 965 million kilogrammes of food went to waste, tossed out or left to rot, according to a report that tries to track food waste.

This is equivalent to 89,351 trucks with a capacity of 120 90-kg bags, an analysis of data from the Economic Survey 2021 reveals.

The massive loss of food by farmers due to challenges in managing, storing and transporting their produce to the market comes at a time when President Uhuru Kenyatta has declared drought in 11 counties a  national disaster.

“Consequently, the president has instructed The National Treasury and the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government to spearhead Government efforts to assist affected households with water and relief food distribution as well as livestock uptake,” said State House spokesperson Kanze Dena.

The counties affected by drought have a total population of 6,709,484, according to the census data of 2019. They include Mandera, Isiolo, Garissa, Marsabit and Wajir.

Others are Turkana, Samburu, Kilifi, Tana River and Lamu.

The quantity of food lost is more than enough to feed the 6.7 million people living in the 11 countries that have been hit by the drought.

Beans, one of the crops that the State is looking for to distribute to the hunger-stricken population, is one of the worst-hit with the country losing a fifth of the domestic supply.

The data shows that last year the country lost 158 million kilogrammes of the legume last year, an increase from 149 million in 2019.

This means that the residents of the 10 counties would each get 23.5 kilogrammes, a supply that is enough for almost two years with the official data showing that every Kenyan consumed an average of 13 kilogrammes of the legume.

The country also lost 33 million kilogrammes of pineapples or 19.4 per cent of the total production. This means that everyone in the hunger-stricken counties would have received 4.9 kilogrammes of the fruit, or nearly twice what a typical Kenyan consumed last year, according to the food balance sheet in the survey.

The survey showed that agricultural sector was one of the few areas that grew last year even as the Covid-19 pandemic battered the economy.

A farmer inspecting grain at NCPB, Nakuru. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Loss of sorghum, popular for preparation of ugali and gruel, amounted to 12.9 per cent, or 33 million kilogrammes against a total domestic supply of 255 million kilogrammes.

With this, each hungry Kenyan in the 11 counties would have received 4.9 kilogrammes of the cereal or more than three times what a Kenyan consumed.

However, in absolute terms, the highest loss was made in potatoes, with the country losing 186 million kilogrammes, about 2.1 million bags, even as farmers in Elgeyo Marakwet were paid the equivalent of a plate of chips for a 90-kilogramme bag.

If the country had not lost these potatoes, each person affected by drought would have easily had 27.7 kilogrammes, enough to last them close to a year, with data from KNBS estimating per capita consumption of the starch last year at 32 kilograms.

Maize, Kenya’s staple food, was not badly hit, with farmers losing 88 million kilogrammes, or 2.1 per cent of the total supply, to post-harvest wastage, including rodents and poor handling during a pandemic year.

The harvest of maize is also normally affected by aflatoxin, a toxin produced by fungi due to exposure to moisture.

Timothy Njagi, a research fellow at Tegemeo Institute, a public policy think-tank, said that the post-harvest losses on maize need to be verified as other reports put the figure at between 10 and 12 per cent.

Nonetheless, the maize lost would have left each of the individual grappling with hunger pangs due to lack of rainfall, with around 13.1 kilogrammes. This is more than a third of what a typical Kenyan consumed in 2020.

The country lost 105 million kilogrammes of tomatoes during the period under review, about a tenth of the total production of 1.1 billion kilogrammes.

For those affected with drought, this is more than enough tomatoes for them every person getting 15.6 kilogrammes of the vegetable. This is against a per capita consumption of 19.7 kilogrammes.

The country lost close to 101 million kilogrammes of fruits, excluding bananas, oranges, lemons and apples. This includes such fruits as mangoes.

Other produce that went to waste due to poor storage and handling, transport, and fungi attack, according to data contained in the 2021 Economic Survey released last week, includes Pulses (23 million kilogrammes), and sweet potatoes (69 kilograms).

Every year, the country loses about a third of its produce through post-harvest losses and food wastage by consumers who buy more than they need, explained Njagi.

Post-harvest losses for produce such as potatoes, beans and maize, gets worse when it rains during the harvesting season.

This has an impact on the country’s food security and reduces profitability for farmers.

Sacks of potatoes at a stall in Eldoret. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

The Government has estimated post-harvest losses at 20 per cent. As part of its Big Four agenda, the State plans to cut these losses to 15 per cent by 2022.

President Uhuru Kenyatta also plans to waive duty on costly cereal drying equipment, hematic bags, grain cocoons/silos, and feed to minimise post-harvest losses. 

“The government will also transform the Strategic Food Reserve by promoting investments in post-harvest handling through public-private partnerships, and by contracting farmers and other commercial off-takers,” said the National Treasury in the Budget Policy Statement for 2018.

Fish production, is also a casualty of post-harvest losses, has also been roped into the Government’s development agenda. It is keen to establish commercialised feedlots for fish and offering incentives for post-harvest technologies.

Mr Njagi said post-harvest losses occurred through poor management, storage, and conveyance as the crop moves from the farm to the market.

The government has been talking of the creation of a commodity exchange to save farmers from being exploited by brokers.

Njagi said good storage facilities alone were not the solution. “While some maize farmers have good storage facilities, the way they store the grain exposes it to humidity and oxygen, thus leading to aflatoxin infection,” said Njagi.

Cold storage trucks are ideal for transporting perishable produce such as tomatoes and milk, but they are expensive.

However, experts have also called for scientific methods of determining post-harvest loss, that most of the figures being thrown around were not scientifically determined, making it difficult for the authorities to take action.

“You need to establish what loss is likely to occur and where so you can have an appropriate response,” said Njagi.

He added that most large-scale farmers did not transport their crops using pit bags, instead using normal bags. Fruits and vegetables, particularly tomatoes, are transported in wooden boxes, resulting in losses

In eastern Kenya, mangoes rot because picky buyers reject them for insignificant reasons such as having spots. “It does not mean that they are not edible. They can be eaten, it is only that buyers tend to pick first grade and everything else goes to waste,” Njagi said.

Such fruits can be blended into juice. Makueni county has set up a mango juice factory, which will go a long way in stemming losses.

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