It’s no secret that regular consumption of fresh vegetables is an important way of achieving essential nutrients to improve health. But for many people access to vegetables is often a challenge. Availability and affordability are also real barriers.
A study in northern Tanzania has shed some light on what prevents local people from accessing particular vegetables, and how the situation can be improved. The study was part of Vegetables for All (VfA), a project being implemented by GAIN and partner organisations under the Amsterdam Initiative against Malnutrition (AIM).
- Post harvesting
Malnutrition rates in northern Tanzania are high: in Kilimanjaro, 28% of children aged 0-59 months are stunted, and in the Tanga region the figure is 49%. Adults are affected too, with 35% of women aged 15-49 in Tanga affected by anaemia.
Vegetable consumption is uneven over the course of a year. While relatively abundant in the wet season, in the dry season vegetables are scarcer. The problem is exacerbated by weaknesses along the whole value chain, with post-harvest handling being a particular challenge.
Tomatoes, for example, are often still stored in traditional bamboo baskets, which cause damage and bruising. Citizens don’t have access to wooden or plastic crates which would care for the tomatoes better. Producers frequently harvest tomatoes when they are still under-ripe to give them a longer shelf-life, which means many ripe tomatoes end up being left in the field, representing a loss to the farmer and reducing supply.
- What’s the solution?
With better storage, preservation and processing facilities, farmers wouldn’t have to sell gluts of fresh seasonal produce immediately after harvesting (when prices are also lower). Processing products can add value and give them a much longer shelf-life, and even fresh produce can be kept much longer given the right conditions.
Some traditional drying and processing techniques are already used in parts of northern Tanzania: small-scale tomato processing is carried out in Kilimanjaro, and leafy vegetables are processed at the household level in some places. But none of this is at a commercial level, and the sophisticated processing technologies used in industrialised countries for drying, pureeing or otherwise processing vegetables are difficult to adapt to low-income settings, not least because of the capital investment required.
However, simpler vegetable processing techniques can combine the advantages of traditional and industrial methods, with low investment costs and high product quality.
For example, the Tanzania Industrial Research and Development Organization (TIRDO) has done research into solar drying technology designed specifically for the country’s small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and has come up with a box dryer, blaze dryer and tunnel dryer, which can all be used for on-farm processing.
Experiments with the tunnel dryer found that 100 kg of cassava chips could be dried in a day. Laboratory analysis showed that levels of cyanide (which occurs naturally in cassava and can make it toxic if not processed out) were below WHO standards, making it suitable for human consumption. With a moisture content of 13%, the chips also had an increased shelf life.
- Invest in the value chain
Improving nutrition for those most in need depends partly on sustainable access to diverse diets. Demand and supply need to be better aligned. The research in northern Tanzania suggests that appropriate investment in the vegetable value chain, and post-harvest processes in particular, could lower risks for producers who otherwise have little incentive to achieve higher yields. Tackling barriers to such investment may therefore unlock a virtual cycle of higher yields, steadier supply, more stable prices, and easier access to vegetables for the consumers who need them.
Find out more about the work GAIN does with agriculture and nutrition.
Caspar is a UK journalist, reporting on projects that GAIN’s involved with. Follow his journey here