PHL Learning Journey with the Rockefeller Foundation: Key Elements to Success

by Steve Sonka, Research Professor, ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss

Between January 2014 and September 2015, the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss (ADMI) has been conducting a Global Learning Assessment focused on postharvest loss reduction.  The analysis was conducted with financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation Waste and Spoilage (WAS) Initiative.  This blog report provides key findings from that assessment.

Evaluation and synthesis of prior interventions to reduce postharvest loss (PHL) form the cornerstone of the findings of the Global Learning Assessment.  In general terms, prior work has tended to be of two types:

  • Reports focused on technological interventions addressing PHL at single stages within specific food supply chains
  • More recently, analyses have been conducted which emphasize postharvest loss at aggregate levels (countries or regions of the world)

This Global Learning Assessment emphasizes findings at a sufficiently micro scale to be linked to potential intervention strategies and the likelihood of achieving sustainable success.  These findings emphasize factors that affect technology adoption and successful implementation.  As discussed in the “Mitigating Postharvest Loss: Addressing Causes Rather than Symptoms” post, prior successful interventions employ a multi-faceted set of responses rather than one action to fix the problem. Characteristics such as the technologies employed, the stage of the supply chain, and the crop/country combination are, of course, important.  However, this effort incorporates a supply chain framework and employs a socio-economic lens to emphasize factors relevant in a global context.

The work of this Global Learning Assessment was organized around three Learning Questions provided by the WAS Initiative. Abbreviated versions of those questions are:

  • Question I: Lessons learned and what’s worked well along the food supply chain in various countries for reducing waste and spoilage?
  • Question II: What promising solutions exist and what needs to happen to scale the promising solutions?
  • Question III: What issues, challenges, skills and capabilities do/should small holder farmers (SHFs), especially female SHFs, prioritize?

What’s Worked Well and Achieving Scale

Matching a key target setting (choice of agricultural commodity(ies) in a geographic region) with the appropriate postharvest loss intervention is essential.  Although necessary, that key step is not sufficient to establish a sustainable initiative to reduce postharvest loss.  Where agricultural commodity systems operate at minimal loss levels and where interventions have been accomplished at scale, an effective market environment has been developed and leveraged.  The three components of the market environment are effective demand, a dynamic supply chain, and a supporting information ecosystem.  Within that setting, decision makers are motivated both to effectively minimize postharvest loss given current technical, economic, and policy conditions and to seek out improvements to further reduce postharvest loss.

Postharvest loss typically is highly visible.  However, the existence of loss doesn’t necessarily mean that economic gain always will result from reducing loss.  This simple notion, that the economic gains from loss reduction need to exceed the costs of doing so, deserves emphasis.  Further, that gain/loss calculation must consider broader farming and food chain systems, rather than focus only on a single loss situation in isolation.  Smallholder farmers and the managers of associated food chains make decisions and operate in response to the “structure” of their food chain and the surrounding culture.  Efforts to reduce postharvest loss that accommodate and leverage the broader system can maximize their chances for success.  (Read more on the systemic effect and the hidden tax of PHL on smallholder farmers here.)

Example of supply chain for relevant technology [1]

Example of supply chain for relevant technology [1]

To achieve scale over time, interventions must be fueled by an effective supply chain for the relevant technology.  The supply chain for the technology associated with the intervention must provide several important functions which extend beyond production of the technology itself.  The entire range of business activities (distribution, marketing, retailing, service, and support) typically is required for a sustaining process to operate.

The information ecosystem

The information ecosystem

Too often, the relationship between an effective, dynamic supply chain for the intervention technology and sustainably achieving scale has been underappreciated.  Without an economic actor whose mission is to expand use and to adapt the intervention as learning occurs, scale is unlikely to be achieved.

Every market setting exists within the context of a broader information ecosystem, which can foster or impede technology adoption.  A program to reduce postharvest loss should include actions which recognize the potentially positive elements of the ecosystem while simultaneously addressing negative factors.  Extension, education, and training efforts are needed to effectively address these needs.

Key Issues Especially for Female Smallholders

The analysis of this Global Learning Assessment documented the extensive involvement of women in the complete range of postharvest activities – harvesting, drying, threshing, processing, storing, and marketing.  (Read the “Women and Postharvest Loss” post for more information.)  When postharvest activities are conducted manually, they tend to be time-consuming, arduous and can particularly diminish the well-being of female smallholders.  When technology replaces manual activities, roles held by women may be replaced, with impacts that can be positive and/or negative.  Further, the potential for health effects, for example from mycotoxins in grain and from malnutrition resulting from lack of storage, are particularly relevant for women – who often eat last and least.

The available literature specifically addressing women and postharvest loss prevention is relatively limited.  However, efforts devoted to gender and female empowerment in developing agriculture, particularly from recent years, offer concepts relevant to postharvest loss reduction.  Planning processes must explicitly address particular needs and opportunities relative to potential effects on female smallholders.   Effective implementation typically begins with training and support available to female smallholders, often relying upon women self-help groups and other local dynamics to ensure access.  Beyond technology-specific training, teaching women entrepreneurship skills and establishing agribusiness models often can help sustain technology adoption.

Planning for women’s inclusion in projects striving to reduce PHL is important. Women do have particular obstacles that must be faced. Fortunately, there are effective practices which have helped to empower women in their roles, reduce postharvest, and improve the well-being of their families.

We hope the research conducted during this project may be useful to postharvest initiatives around the world. For more detailed information on the learnings from this project, please contact Steve Sonka at ssonka@illinois.edu.


[1] Gummert, M., & Schmidley, A. (2011). Postharvest, Learning Alliances and Business Models [PDF document]. Retrieved from: http://www.africarice.org/workshop/grisp-mech/PPT/Martin%20Gummert-IRRI.pdf

[box style=”rounded” border=”none”][typography size=”12″ size_format=”px” color=”#666666″] The ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss is currently working on a learning assessment of global food loss as part of a grant supported by the Rockefeller Foundation for the Waste and Spoilage Initiative. For more information on this project, please click here. [/typography]

[typography size=”12″ size_format=”px” color=”#666666″]This blog post is part of series that highlights outcomes and learnings of the Global Learning Assessment project. This is the fourth and last post in this series. Read the prior posts: Post 1Post 2, and Post 3 [/typography]

[typography size=”12″ size_format=”px” color=”#666666″]The ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss is an international information and technology hub for evaluating, creating and disseminating economically viable technologies, practices and systems that reduce postharvest loss in staple crops.  For more information about the ADM Institute, please visit our website. [/typography][/box]

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