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Nature · Economy

African farmers triumph over pests

July 07th, 2015
in:Nature, Economy
by:Bob Koigi
located in:Kenya
tags:Africa, farming, food, Hunger, Kenya, pests, poverty, resources

Kenya loses up to 40 percent of its farm produce during post-harvest predominantly through poor storage and pest attacks, costing the country more than $500 million annually.

Ironically one quarter of the country’s 40 million people are food insecure with 2 million being desperately hungry.

The situation reverberates across Sub Saharan Africa where $4 billion is lost each year, even as 29 percent of the population remains hungry, according to and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Yet the losses have continued unabated, bringing with them life-threatening diseases and dwindling household incomes as families dispose their produce at throwaway prices in fear of them going bad.

The losses, according to the agencies, are enough to meet the annual food requirements of at least 48 million people in the region.

Conventional preservation and storage equipment like metal silos are prohibitively priced and out of reach for the majority of smallholder farmers who are responsible for 80 percent of all food produced in Sub Saharan Africa. They have thus borne the brunt of pest attacks on harvests.

But vanguard farmers are inspiring a new wave of low cost home-made innovations, some guided by age old practices that are reversing the sorry state of affairs. From using sawdust to increase the shelf life of potatoes to using candle smoke to fight rice weevils, these enterprising farmers are leading a pest control revolution which is fast gaining grounds across the region.

Dorothy Mahinda is among the pioneer farmers to have adopted home-made pest control innovations. A rice farmer in Central Kenya’s Mwea area, which is Kenya’s rice basket, Dorothy has been struggling with rice pests for the last seven seasons. For every ten bags of rice that she harvests, four are lost during storage, costing her on average $500. Her lightbulb moment came when a friend introduced her to the use of cooking oil and candle to rid her storage area off pests. Having tried all conventional pesticides in vain, she thought she had nothing to lose by trying the new method.

Dorothy, like most rice farmers, stores her rice grains in earthenware pots, each the size of a gallon drum. Dorothy then smears cooking oil inside the pots before lighting a candle. The cooking oil is meant to seal any openings that may give entry to any more pests after the pot is sealed. Dorothy then passes the candle inside the pot in circular motions but with caution to avoid melting the oil. The smoke from the candle suffocates any pests that may have taken shelter in the pot – an age old tradition that started in the rice fields of Bangladesh. The lid is then closed and the process of lighting the candle is repeated everyday for five minutes to ensure that any hole a farmer may not have been able to block with the oil doesn’t attract pests.

“I have reduced the amount of rice I lose from ten bags to one bag. In my entire life as a history farmer which spans fifteen years, never have I achieved such results,” says Dorothy.

Miles away, in a small village of Tanzania’s Iringa district, farmers gather in an informal meeting. They are here to report the successes of a potato preservation method that they have used for the last two seasons. By using sawdust, the shelf life of the potatoes is increased from six weeks to between two and three months depending on the potato variety. Among the farmers in the meeting are five Kenyans, two Ugandans and two Rwandese. They are here on a farmer exchange program. The success of the low cost preservation technique has won hearts across East Africa.

To store the potatoes after harvest, the farmers identify a clean space where they would like to store their potatoes. They then spread chips of sawdust evenly before placing potatoes on top of sawdust. Another layer of sawdust is spread on top of the potatoes. The sawdust, according to the farmers, must be moist but not overly wet. Dry sawdust affects the quality of potato and makes them prone to pests while wet sawdust makes potatoes rot.

“Potato has become a hot commodity but in the recent past it had been loosing value due to farmers planting and harvesting at the same time. In a bid to dispose it in time to avoid rotting, all farmers would take theirs to the market, creating a glut and ultimately a low farm gate price,” said Tassus Mapunda the head of Iringa farmers group. According to a survey by Bridgenet Africa, a not-for-profit organization working with farmers across Africa, farm gate price of potatoes that had hit unprecedented lows from 2009 to 2013 in most Sub Saharan countries had contributed to the diminished production of the crop.

A 90kg bag of potatoes that initially cost $50  had plummeted to between $20 and $25  due to oversupply. The sawdust innovation is now resuscitating production, albeit gradually. Mapunda says market prices have increased and demand for potatoes is spread across the country since buyers are now assured of constant supply.

Scientists have also taken time to study these innovations to understand their efficacy in fighting African farmers’ biggest headache and have given them a clean bill of health. “In countries that lose up to 40 percent of harvested yields to these pests, creating market imbalances and fanning hunger cycle, these innovations are the region’s best bet for now,” said Professor Phillip Mwathe from the University of Nairobi College of Agriculture and Veterinary Services in a keynote address to agriculture ministers from Africa who had gathered to discuss threats to Africa’s food production.

Industry players have also rallied their support to these innovations arguing that they are a cheaper way of increasing food supply rather than producing more to feed a burgeoning Sub Saharan Africa that has outpaced any other part of the world and estimated to more than double by 2050, hitting the 2.4 billion mark.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Current Map: Our coverage
The losses of the harvest, according to the agencies, are enough to meet the annual food requirements of at least 48 million people in the region.
Conventional preservation and storage equipment like metal silos are prohibitively priced and out of reach for the majority of smallholder farmers who are responsible for 80 percent of all food produced in Sub Saharan Africa.
For every ten bags of rice which are harvested, four are lost during storage, costing on average $500.

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