Hunger, poverty and the challenge of food storage
If you visit many offices across Nigeria at lunch time during the months of May, June, July and August, chances are high that you will find a good number of workers munching away at “mouth organs”. Yes, with corn in season, one of the most popular delicacies at this time is the combination of roasted corn (popularly code-named as “mouth organ”) and the African pear. Coconut is an occasional close substitute for pear and this writer has it on good authority that many people find the coconut and “mouth-organ” combination, just as delicious too.
Outside of those months when both corn and pear are in season, this delicious combination is unavailable. Interestingly, during those harvest months, enough corn and pear to sustain the country for a substantial period, perhaps even an entire year, may have been harvested. But with inadequate knowledge and utilization of modern and cost-effective storage and preservation methods, tonnes of maize and pear end up wasted every year.
The same applies to many other agricultural commodities in Nigeria. At harvest periods, there is often a surplus, but in the absence of proper storage, a huge proportion of these harvests eventually goes to waste. These perennial losses pose a huge threat to the economic wellbeing of farmers, majority of whom operate at the subsistence level.
The challenge which this problem of poor storage and preservation of food poses to our country, becomes even more haunting when one considers the difficulties with which we are likely to be confronted in the post-COVID era.
It is, therefore, imperative that beyond improving the volumes of our agricultural output, we look critically at how to empower farmers across the country to better manage their harvests. This will translate to immense economic value not only to the farmers themselves whose livelihoods will be enhanced, but also to the country as a whole, as more food will become more widely available and for extended periods, for consumption and export.
Instructively, a number of research organizations and universities have over the years introduced different solutions to the problem of post-harvest losses. The innovations that have been developed, being home-grown, are unique because they reflect the realities of our local environment. Not only are they relatively cheap, as they are also often technically uncomplicated, farmers can adopt them readily.
In the area of fish farming for instance, there is an innovation known as the “iced-fish box” with which harvested fish may be stored in order to remain fresh on transportation to the market from the farm or ahead of processing and storage. In addition, specialized smoking kilns have been developed to replace the labour-intensive, yet inefficient and unhealthy traditional fish smoking methods. Output from these kilns is good enough for export and is several multiples of what is ordinarily obtainable by traditional fish-smoking methods. Nigerian researchers have also produced composite packaging material that can be used for packaging such smoked fish or even smoked meat as the case may be, preserving the end-product and boosting its commercial appeal.
Whether it is beans, corn or rice that become discoloured, mouldy, smelly or infested with weevils, grains pose problems of storage for farmers, often leading to considerable financial losses. In the past, grains exported from Nigeria have also faced rejection because of the unacceptable levels of residual pesticides they contain.
Local researchers have been active in the area of grain preservation, churning out a handful of innovative solutions over the years. For instance, there are solar dryers that have been developed for different products. Given the abundance of sunshine in our country and the simplicity of construction of these dryers, they are relatively affordable by the average farmer.
Construction can also be easily replicated in local settings. Essentially, these solar dryers work to enhance the efficiency of drying of agricultural produce. They do this by concentrating the rays of the sun on a particular surface, enhancing drying efficiency over the traditional method of spreading grains, cassava and plantain peelings and others, indiscriminately under the sun.
Specially constructed steel drums which when properly shut become airtight (hermetic) and with which farmers can store grains over several months, have also been developed by local researchers. There are specialized storage silos as well, which can help store and preserve grains over many months. There is in fact, a particular twin silo which can jointly accommodate up to 100 tonnes of grains at a time.
Local researchers have also developed bio-pesticides as an alternative to chemical pesticides. Commonly available chemical pesticides though effective against pests are often harmful to man and the environment, too. Bio-pesticides, on the other hand, are much safer and constitute no environmental hazard. One of such pesticides (NSPRIDUST), an innovation by the Nigerian Stored Products Research Institute, is made from diatomaceous earth, a powdery form of a naturally occurring rock in Nigeria. Bio-pesticides will help to make Nigerian grains potentially more acceptable in the export market.
Fruits and vegetables are not left out of the problem of poor preservation and storage in Nigeria. While we import apples, pears, strawberries and other fruits round-the-clock, there is not much that can be said about Nigeria’s fruit exports. Again, Nigeria’s researchers have also over time, heralded different solutions to this problem. There is the specially constructed fruit and vegetable shed for instance, made of simple and locally available raw materials, and which helps farmers to preserve fruits and vegetables for longer. Then, there is the fruit dryer, which by drying certain fruits helps to preserve them.
Local researchers are working fervently on fruit and vegetable conservation using the principle of “evaporative cooling”. Evaporative cooling is the cooling that results when water evaporates from a surface. Incidentally, fruit and vegetable preservation using evaporative cooling is not new, having been practiced for decades in traditional settings in Nigeria. Researchers are now keen to find new ways to enhance the efficiency and efficacy of traditional evaporative cooling systems in order to preserve the shelf life of fruits and vegetables over a longer duration.
For tubers such as yams and potatoes, local researchers have long come up with such products as “ventilated yam barns” for the storage of yam tubers, “diffused-light store” for the storage of potatoes, “cassava root warehouse” for the storage of cassava roots among many others.
There is no doubt that widespread adoption of these technologies by farmers across the country will help to considerably stem the tide of post-harvest losses in Nigeria. This will, one must repeat, translate to significant economic value not only for the farmers and the wider agricultural value chain, but for the entire country as well.
Getting the agricultural value chain to increasingly adopt these innovations will entail patient and systematic engagement.
Farmers’ cooperatives and associations will be a good medium with which to reach farmers across the country with information and education. So its the media and media institutions. Research institutes and Faculties of Agriculture in our various universities, being vital hotbeds of innovation, must work more collaboratively in order to jointly share and popularize innovations that are emanating therefrom.
Agricultural chambers of commerce are a potential source of popularizing these innovations especially among policy makers and influencers and should also be engaged.
The increasing penetration of smartphones across the country also presents an opportunity with which to reach millions of farmers with information and education.
Dr. Pessu is executive director of Nigerian Stored Products Research Institute, Ilorin.