Dr. Lisa Kitinoja has been working in the agricultural sector since the 1980s, specialising in postharvest technology and food loss reduction in many countries. In 2011 she founded The Postharvest Education Foundation (PEF), a non-profit organization that provides education and resources, including a mentoring program for young professionals, to reduce postharvest losses across the globe. PEF runs an annual global e-learning program with participants from across Asia and Africa, to build capacity and train participants in technologies and methods of reducing postharvest food losses in a way that can be applied to their local contexts. Dr. Kitinoja sat down with Food Tank to share her insights and discuss the impact that PEF is having on the ground.
Food Tank: What was the inspiration for The Postharvest Education Foundation?
Lisa Kitinoja: After nearly 30 years of working in the field of international agricultural development, my postharvest technology colleagues and I were ready for semi-retirement and a big new challenge. You can find brief bios for each of our board of directors on our website. We have specialties in crop loss assessment, postharvest extension work/training, food safety, food processing and more, so from our experience in more than 30 countries, we knew that food losses are extremely high all around the world. We’ve measured losses in the 30 to 80 percent range for many perishable food crops, and often in any country losses can average 30 to 40 percent – and sometimes are even as high as a complete loss of 100 percent if the weather is very hot or it’s the rainy season and local market roads are closed.
However, much of our careers were spent trying to get some attention for this long neglected field. Historically, only 5 percent of the international funding spent on agricultural development is put toward preventing food losses, while 95 percent goes to attempts to increase production. In 2011, we thought it was time to form a new 501(c)3 non-profit corporation that would focus on the problem of the lack of trained young people in careers that help farmers, food traders, processors and marketers to reduce food losses. Since then there have been many new initiatives that are looking at the issue (including the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s SAVE FOOD initiative, the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative, and the Archer Daniel Midlands Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss at the University of Illinois, as well as work by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, the Rockefeller Foundation, the World Resources Institute, and others) and we are really pleased to see the world is paying more attention to food losses and waste.
FT: What are the biggest challenges farmers are facing as a result of lack of storage?
LK: Often farmers must sell their crops at the time of harvest, and that’s when everyone else is selling the same foods on the local market, so the prices can be very low. If they have no place to store foods, then they must purchase later in the year for their own household consumption needs. If they have an opportunity to put the foods into storage, or process into a product with a longer shelf life, and sell later in the year, they can gain more profits. Our programs provide information on many different options, from the simple practices to prevent damage and immediate losses (the use of shade, improved containers, evaporative cool chambers they can build on the farm), to longer term storage (for dry foods and for crops that need cool storage), to high end marketing strategies (finding niche markets for organic foods, selling at local farmer’s markets, direct marketing to hotels and restaurants) so each person can choose what will work best for their own crops and economic needs.
FT: How do food loss issues differ in developing versus developed countries?
LK: In developing countries, losses occur mainly at the farm level, during handling, transport and in storage. These losses are often due to lack of education, use of very poor quality containers and packages such as sacks to handle vegetable crops, and lack of access to storage facilities (which may not exist), lack of immediate transport after harvest or unawareness of different kinds of markets. In developed countries we have reduced losses in these steps of the postharvest system, but high losses still occur later on, during retail marketing (when anything that does not look perfect is discarded before sale), and in restaurants and at home (whenever we throw away edible food).
FT: How does your online education program work?
LK: In November each year we accept applications for the next year’s Global Postharvest E-Learning Program. It is a year-long program (January through December) that can be accessed via the Internet. We cover many topics, in ten assignments – our trainees learn how to assess postharvest food losses in their community, identify possible solutions, design demonstrations of improved practices and interventions, to teach people how to adopt these new practices, and perform local cost/benefit analyses so they are sure the solution is cost effective. At the conclusion of the program, we gather the trainees for a week-long workshop, so they can meet one another and learn to use their “Postharvest Tool Kit,” which contains many supplies and tools they can use to measure losses, assess quality and provide demonstrations for farmers. We held workshops in India and Africa during 2013 and 2014, and have 48 PEF graduates to date. Last year’s closing workshop was in northern Tanzania, where we have had more than 15 trainees, and next year we would like to offer the workshop somewhere in West Africa, since this year we have many trainees from Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana.
FT: What challenges have you faced in coordinating postharvest education across so many countries?
LK: The Global E-learning Program is well established and relatively easy to manage, but we do face challenges in gathering up all our trainees for the closing workshop after each year’s program is complete. They live in many different countries and need to get travel visas or permission from their supervisors to take time off from their work or university graduate courses. To date, PEF has covered the full cost of the workshops, and the size of the program has grown each year, so in 2014 we’ll need to receive a lot of donations in order to be able to bring all 32 of our trainees to the closing workshop.
FT: Finally, we would love for you to share with us a story of positive change experienced by one of the participants as a result of your education program.
LK: It is difficult to choose only one, since we have quite a few “success stories” among our Global Postharvest Program graduates. We call them our “Postharvest Specialists” since they have been educated and equipped to be independent postharvest consultants, trainers, extension workers and adaptive researchers (modifying an existing technology to adapt it to their local conditions, indigenous materials and available supplies). One of our goals is to create a global cadre of young people with the knowledge, connections, skills and tools to solve postharvest food loss problems in their own countries, thereby reducing the amount of money that is spent on bringing in high cost “experts” and consultants from developed countries.
Here are a few examples:
- Noel Valentin Mulinda, of Kigali, Rwanda, has opened his own consulting firm, and provides postharvest advice, training on loss reduction and services for farmers, cooperative members and food marketers in his country.
- Faruq bin Hossain, of Dhaka, Bangladesh, has become a postharvest technology specialist as part of his job at the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, and has developed low cost equipment for heat treatment for insect pest control in tropical fruits. Along with his wife and research partner Sadia Arfin, also a graduate of our PEF program, he has launched a new company that works with farmers in nearby rural communities and assists them with reducing food losses.
- Odette Ngulu, of Moshi, Tanzania, is working as a postharvest consultant and trainer, teaching women’s groups how to dry vegetables and make jams and juices from fruits. She has assisted PEF with several local study tours and in February 2014 organized an “open house” where local farmers and food processors met and interacted with visiting postharvest experts.
- Janne Remmy, of Arusha, Tanzania, has been doing part-time postharvest consulting work whenever she can find the time. Along with her fellow graduate e-learner and local commercial farmer, Xanfon Bitala, she has been assessing the causes and sources of postharvest losses and quality problems in Tanzanian fruit and vegetable crops and assisting the Tanzania Horticultural Association with the design and construction of several “Farmer Service Centers” in southern Tanzania.
Want to know more? Further information about Lisa’s work can be found on The Postharvest Education Foundation website, and the PEF blog. Food Tank is a vocal advocate of reducing food losses and food waste, and previous articles we have written on the subject can be found here: