Purdue, Feed the Future thinking beyond crop harvesting in Africa

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Purdue University researchers will lead a $5 million, five-year effort to help countries in sub-Saharan Africa reduce hunger and poverty fueled by food waste.

By improving processing and marketing of key crops, those in developing countries can make better use of food that already is being produced but is simply lost through poor storage or processing technologies and management practices.

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Processing and Post-Harvest Handling was announced by United States Agency for International Development administrator Rajiv Shah on Thursday (May 22) at the Chicago Council's Global Food Security Symposium. It is funded by Feed the Future, the U.S. government's Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative led by USAID.

"This award from Feed the Future will enable Purdue to help smallholder farmers make available not only more food in a region of the world where it is greatly needed but also more nutritious food," said university President Mitch Daniels.

Nine researchers from Purdue's College of Agriculture and 11 from other universities in the United States and Africa will conduct research that will support and strengthen crops' "value chain," the process by which crops go from farm to market to fork.

Objectives of the research are to:

* Improve drying and storage of cereal grains (corn, rice, sorghum and millet) and grain legumes (cowpea, soybean and peanut) in the humid tropics of Africa, specifically Kenya and Senegal.

* Increase commercialization of crops and improve nutrition.

* Strengthen institutional and human capacities along the value chain, with emphasis on gender-sensitive approaches as most postharvest activities in sub-Saharan Africa are performed by women.

* Establish and strengthen public-private partnerships to promote and adopt innovations in technology to reduce postharvest food loss.

Experts say food production will need to double by 2050, when the world's population is expected to increase to 9 billion people from 7 billion today. While current efforts mainly involve increasing production to meet the growing demand, this Feed the Future Innovation Lab focuses on reducing food losses along the value chain, said Betty Bugusu, project director and managing director of the International Food Technology Center at Purdue. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates such losses at one-third of all food produced worldwide, with losses prevalent in developing countries.

"It is essential to recognize that food security does not end at harvest, since a significant amount of the food produced in developing countries is lost due to poor postharvest handling techniques and limited market opportunities," Bugusu said.

 The research will build on Purdue's and collaborators' record of research and development in postharvest commodity activities leading to improved market access for smallholder farmers. Key results from past work include the Purdue Improved Crop Storage technologies, or PICS, that reduce losses from insect damage, and research to disseminate food processing technologies to rural and urban areas. 

The researchers also have expertise in drying technologies to decrease grain loss from mold and in processing grain to generate market-competitive products with enhanced nutrition.

The project also aims to help develop markets for smallholder farmers, thereby providing more food while also improving their livelihoods, said James "Jess" Lowenberg-DeBoer, associate dean of Purdue's College of Agriculture and director of its International Programs in Agriculture. Farming in sub-Saharan countries is mostly centered on smallholder farmers producing food for their families. About 90 percent of them own farms of about two hectares - slightly less than five acres.

"It is seldom viewed as a business," he said. "A viable and sustainable agriculture revolution that works for farmers, businesses and the environment in developing countries must involve development of a thriving and profitable market-driven food sector to expand market access for farmers and reduce food losses."

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