September 3, 2015

Farm to Table in Africa

Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series
By Kate Collins, 2015 Next Generation Delegate and MPA-MBA dual degree candidate at Harvard Kennedy School and MIT Sloan School.
In the US, foodies resist the processed and preserved. Food writer Michael Pollan is famous for his simple advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Pollan implies that the highly processed and preserved is not quite food anymore. Standing in Whole Foods, it is easy to vilify food technologies, and romanticize the bygone days when people grew their own food.
Halfway around the world in sub-Saharan Africa, the bygone days are still around. Here safe food processing and storage are very much in demand to safely feed a booming population.
East Africa’s most widespread staple crop, maize, illustrates the need. Maize is vulnerable to a mold called aflatoxin. If you are eating from a commercial farm in the US, aflatoxin does not concern you. American corn is harvested, shelled, transported in stainless steel truck beds, dried in industrial aerating chambers, and processed into sundry consumer goods. But, if you are one of the 800 million Africans eating from a local family farm, aflatoxin is a serious concern. If maize is not properly handled after harvest, aflatoxin grows while the maize is stored after harvest. The maize will be consumed as the odorless and invisible mold goes unnoticed.
Aflatoxin is starting to look like a missing piece in the region’s food security puzzle. Public health professionals have long known that exposure can cause cancer, liver failure, and in large doses, immediate death. Researchers are now noticing that aflatoxin is associated with childhood stunting. Trials are underway to establish a causal relationship. The suspected link is aflatoxin’s role as an immunosuppressant. Not only does aflatoxin make kids more vulnerable to infection, but it also inhibits the body from synthesizing protein and absorbing the micronutrients that are crucial to brain development.
A quarter of the world’s kids under five are stunted. Almost all of them live in Africa and Asia. Stunting is a proxy for malnourishment. It does not involve small size alone, but also a weak immune system, impaired brain development, and even a higher risk for infant mortality.
Maize spared from aflatoxin still risks contamination from substandard processing. Most East African maize is milled into flour, most often in one of the local hammer mills that dot East Africa. These mills are inexpensive and can run on small diesel engines. This relatively low-tech solution leeches iron shavings into food. Over the course of just one day the iron blades inside the mill degrade. One local miller offered a rough estimate: on a given day in Dar es Salaam, people consume about 7 tons worth of iron shavings.
After decades of focusing on food security in terms of calories, the development community is learning what Michael Pollan preaches: It’s not just how much you eat, but what you eat that counts.
In the case of African agriculture, food security relies on upgrading the continent’s capacity to process and safely store food. It will require investment in technology beyond the field—perhaps as simple as plastic tarps for drying maize and magnets for cleaning iron shavings from flour.  (Unfortunately these deceptively simple fixes have a complicated context; for example, farmers tend to rush drying their maize because they have pressing needs for cash, and the crop might be their only income on the horizon.)
American firms are well positioned to help address this challenge. We gripe about it at Whole Foods, but American companies excel in food processing. Surely if US companies can make biodegradable plastic forks made of corn, then American food technologies can improve post-harvest handling and processing in Africa. A consortium of giant American companies is already doing just that. The likes of General Mills united under Partners for Food Solutions to improve food technologies on the continent by sharing technical expertise. Private involvement in a public problem could go further afield: If Wall Street can come up with credit default swaps, can a whiz kid come up with a financial product that gives a farmer the cash he needs to dry his maize on time?
Better yet, local solutions to the challenge of safe grain storage and processing are underway in Nairobi. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, or AGRA, the organization I interned with this summer, was a partner in producing the Chicago Council agriculture and nutrition conference I joined. AGRA is looking at ways to improve the quality of the grain supply and grain storage by accelerating the growth of local grain trading and milling companies.
The obstacles in the way of a safe and secure food supply in Africa are surprisingly nuanced and deeply entrenched. But creative public-private partnerships can, and already are, helping to find solutions.  
Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. New York: Penguin Press, 2008.
Read previous posts in the Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series:


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Janet Fierro

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When researchers set out to find natural ways to manage a crop-destroying pest in sub-Saharan Africa cowpea fields they knew the results could have significant positive impact on smallholder farmers. What they may not have expected was the significance of the cottage industry it inspired and the entrepreneurial spirit of the rural women of Niger who led it.