Market-Based Solutions to Post-Harvest Loss (PHL) in Africa

Market-Based Solutions to Post-Harvest Loss (PHL) in Africa

by | Dec 8, 2017

Post-harvest loss (PHL) has long been a major problem in sub-Saharan Africa

Why this matters
PHL often causes both food scarcity and major income losses for farmers

The takeaway
While local firms can ultimately solve the problem, they often need a boost from international development agencies that can provide training in the use of food storage products

In Depth

Ever since the mid-1970s, public health experts have been clamoring for interventions to reduce post-harvest loss (PHL) in developing countries. Unfortunately, PHL continues to be a main reason why a third of the food produced throughout the world is wasted, according to a 2011 report by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), which also estimated that nearly 40% of grain in sub-Saharan Africa is lost between production and consumption.

“While many economists have long assumed that technology is all that is needed to reduce PHL, the problem is much more complicated than that,” says Steve Sonka, a professor of agricultural strategy in the department of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois. “The challenge also involves making sure that the technology is widely adopted by local farmers, and this requires setting up markets in these developing countries,” notes Sonka. “Eventually the market has to take over.”

In a paper recently presented at an international conference in Denmark, Sonka and two fellow University of Illinois economists, Yu-Tien Cheng and Grace Kenney, map out a strategy for implementing market-based solutions to PHL. The strategy relies on three key managerial concepts: (1) economic analysis; (2) a systems perspective and (3) measurement-based decision-making. Sonka and his colleagues show how these three tools have resulted in a numerous studies quantifying both the precise extent of the particular problems faced by local farmers and the likely impact of proposed interventions.. “Quantitative analysis can identify the true cause of an economic problem—as opposed to the symptoms—but it can also document results,” says Sonka, who also cites successful efforts to protect food in several African countries.

Pest damage has long been a major constraint on cowpea production in Africa. Not only can pests damage crops, but the threat of storage losses often leads farmers to sell their crops immediately after harvest—when prices are at a low point. In response, researchers at Purdue University developed a triple-layer cowpea storage bag—a new technology that kills pests without the use of chemicals. Launched in 2007 with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) project aimed to bring these hermetically sealed bags to farmers in 10 African countries. The PICS project worked closely with local manufacturers to help them market and distribute their wares. For example, it collaborated with a Nigerian firm, which ended up selling the bags to wholesalers in seven countries, to conduct informational sessions that explained to vendors both how to use the bags as well as their specific economic benefits. Over its first six years, over two million bags were sold, and the PICS project has been an unqualified success. In the 2012-2013 storage year, the PICS project managed to save African farmers and households at least $34 million.

While policy makers do need to help create markets for such innovative products in Africa, once this groundwork has been laid, the private sector can often step in quickly, stresses Sonka.

Dig Deeper

Sonka, Agarwal, and Shah-Resolving the Post-Harvest Loss Paradox: Private Sector Solutions and Aid Agency Engagement

Sonka-Tracking Gains to Small-Hold Farmers from Reducing Post-Harvest Losses

Sonka–Assessing Progress in Reducing Post-Harvest Loss



Joshua Kendall has written on business and healthcare for numerous publications including BusinessWeek, Fortune.comThe New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. For more about his work visit