PHL Scholars: Examining the economic impacts of post-harvest loss prevention
Educating future generations of postharvest loss researchers and practitioners is an important part of ADMI’s mission. To that end, ADMI developed the Postharvest Loss Reduction Scholarship (PHL Scholar) program that funds master’s and doctoral students conducting cutting-edge postharvest loss-related research in different departments at the College of ACES. Over the past few years, these University of Illinois students have been making important contributions to ADMI-funded research projects in addition to their own work.
By Gowthami Venkateswaran, PHL Scholar
I still remember feeling over the moon on the day I received the ADMI Post-Harvest Loss (PHL) fellowship along with my admission to pursue a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics (ACE) at the University of Illinois. As a PhD student, I have the opportunity to pursue my academic and research interests while being exposed to innovative policy research as an ADMI PHL Scholar. My research interests lie at the intersection of agriculture and development; I focus on smallholder farmer issues in developing countries, including post-harvest losses, and market and supply chain integration.
I have been working on three PHL-related projects with Professor Kathy Baylis. First, as part of my master’s thesis, we studied the demand and willingness to pay for high-quality grains stored in hermetic bags. When used correctly, hermetic bags provide an air-tight seal, helping to maintain constant moisture content and eliminating insect growth and aflatoxin infestation. Aflatoxins are a family of toxins produced by certain fungi on agricultural crops. By conducting a choice experiment for traders and end-consumers, we studied the increase in demand for aflatoxin-free grain, and if the increase in demand affects hermetic storage bag adoption among farmers in Bihar, India. To collect data for this project, I traveled to Bihar and spoke to farmers directly about their agricultural practices, current storage technologies, and other post-harvest problems.
In another study, we compare farmer-reported PHL measurements to measured losses during post-harvest activities, including harvesting, threshing, cleaning, drying, and storage. While multiple papers measure these losses, they use different methods, resulting in estimates ranging from 1% to 33% of the total crop. Many of these estimates rely on self-reported loss measures, raising concerns about their validity. Others rely on lab experiments, which may not reflect losses experienced in the field. Further, most of these loss estimates focus on loss in quantity, ignoring losses in quality which often are much larger in value. So, in our experiment, we compare past estimates on PHL to novel survey and field experimental grain loss data collected at various levels of the supply chain. We found that self-reported values and measured physical losses are significantly inconsistent for maize, wheat, and rice from the state of Bihar, India. My experience with this project has allowed me to think critically about some of the big picture problems that need to be addressed in the field of PHL.
Finally, in an ongoing project, will be collaborating with Grow Indigo, a digital platform in India that connects agricultural product manufacturers to input retailers. From our findings in Bihar, we know that smallholder farmers are willing to pay for hermetic storage bags. However, there is no constant and established supply for this storage technology to farmers, despite the demand. Therefore, by connecting input retailers to hermetic bag manufacturers through an online app, we hope to analyze the role of agricultural input dealers in closing the supply chain gap and in increasing smallholder adoption of hermetic bags. We anticipate two main questions: First, does connecting input retailers to input manufacturers through a digital platform reduce the supply chain constraints? Second, does the source of information on the existence and use of hermetic bags influence technology adoption and usage? In other words, how does the channel of information dissemination affect information access and technology adoption for smallholder farmers? Being involved in this project is helping me make connections with other partners.
Beyond these three projects, being a PHL Scholar has also allowed me to acquire key skills required to become a successful development economist. For instance, during my field trip in India (top picture), I was involved in training field enumerators for the endline survey of the ADMI PHL project. I have prepared, supervised, and implemented surveys that were part of an RCT. Through a forum held by ADMI and IFPRI on improved grain storage in Delhi, I had the opportunity to engage with policymakers, academics as well as the private sector and discuss barriers and ways to reduce post-harvest losses in South Asia. With all of these experiences, it’s only fair to say that being a PHL Scholar has reaffirmed my career choice of being an agricultural economist to find solutions that will benefit farmers in low-income countries.