The COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost every aspect of life, including how food is distributed, purchased and consumed. In low-income countries, consumers have had to contend with higher food prices and less fresh, nutritious food available to eat. On the supply side, the millions of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) that produce, process or sell up to 70% of nutritious foods in low income countries are also facing challenges. A recent survey conducted by GAIN to understand the impact of COVID-19 on food system SMEs in 17 countries revealed that 94% of the respondents reported being impacted by the pandemic, mainly via decreased sales (82%), difficulty accessing inputs (49%), and difficulty paying staff (44%).
While the pandemic has had a devastating short-term impact on all those who rely on local food systems, it has also exposed their underlying fragility. Although COVID-19 has seen additional food losses, it is far from being new, in fact it often seems hard wired into the current food system. Rather, it has been a feature of food systems in low-income countries for many years. In Nigeria, for example, it is estimated that 40-50% of fresh fruits and vegetables are lost during crating, transportation, storage and processing.
Food loss at such a scale has huge consequences for the health of local populations, on livelihoods and local economies. In Nigeria, for example, 32% of Nigeria’s children are classified as stunted and 2 million children suffer from severe acute malnutrition. Fresh vegetables are a key source of several micro-nutrients essential for a healthy diet but only if they are readily available and affordable for local populations. One of the main reasons for this massive waste is a lack of temperature-controlled supply chain infrastructure, also known as cold chain. Keeping fresh fruit and vegetables and other perishable foods at the right temperature and safely stored not only extends shelf life, it also improves food safety as exposure to contaminants like dirt and bacteria is reduced. Effective cold chains are the norm in high-income country agri-food value chains but largely absent in low-income countries.
As attention starts to shift towards post-pandemic recovery and the need to build back stronger, more nutritious food systems, a key priority for governments and the private sector must be to reduce food loss and waste to ensure that safe nutritious food is more readily available and affordable for local people. Investing in cold chain will be a critical step in reducing food loss of nutritious foods given their perishable nature. Perishable commodities need to be pre-cooled, chilled, and/or frozen as close to the point of harvest as possible, to retain nutrients and add shelf life.
This is not an easy task. Developing cold chain infrastructure and the capacity to operate it is a complex, systemic challenge. In many low-income countries, the fresh produce value chain beyond the farm gate is highly fragmented, comprising thousands of small businesses engaged in moving food to market. These businesses face many challenges that restrict their ability to invest in cold chain including limited access to finance and low availability of effective, affordable cold chain solutions.
At the same time, we are seeing an upspring of ag-tech entrepreneurs and universities bringing innovative, low cost cold chain solutions to market. However, they too face difficulties scaling up their solutions for similar reasons. The combination of this fragmented landscape of players and the multiple challenges they face means that, in many countries, cold chain infrastructure remains limited.
Recognising the need for a new approach to address food loss and waste of nutritious foods, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) established the Postharvest Loss Alliance for Nutrition (PLAN) programme in Nigeria, Indonesia and Ethiopia. PLAN aims to bring together food system stakeholders to reduce post-harvest loss along nutritious food value chains.
In Nigeria, for example, PLAN helped to transform a fragmented and uncoordinated group of public and private stakeholders into a cohesive and coordinated network, aligned around the shared goal of reducing post-harvest loss in the tomato value chain. PLAN members, including traders, growers, aggregators, distributors, local and federal government representatives, banks, cold chain entrepreneurs, along with many others, were provided specialised trainings, business to business mentorships and networking opportunities as well as financial support to de-risk investment in local cold chain equipment.
Crucially, PLAN has enabled a group of small businesses to create a business-led, industry platform to drive the development of cold chain infrastructure and capacity in Nigeria. With on-going support from PLAN Nigeria, in June 2018, these businesses formed the Organisation for the Technical Advancement of Cold Chain in West Africa (OTACCWA), which now has over a hundred paying industry and institutional members.
Learning from the PLAN programme, OTACCWA provides its members with a platform for peer learning and exchange between businesses and stakeholders to foster the development of cold chain innovations and to build technical knowledge and management know-how through regular training and capacity building events. It also facilitates deal-making and commercial relationships between companies, joining up demand for cold chain solutions with supply. And it has enabled the industry to speak with one unified voice to government, helping to more clearly define the role of business in supporting the country’s food and nutrition security goals and shaping policy frameworks that support the development of the cold chain sector.
Although still in its infancy, OTACCWA highlights the power of enabling industry-led, collective action to develop cold chain infrastructure to reduce post-harvest loss. Establishing large networks and business alliances around specific agri-food value chains increases the scope for long-term transformative impact by addressing complex root-cause issues in a coordinated way, rather than through piecemeal solutions. Empowering organisations to develop solutions from the bottom up, ensures that they are relevant to specific sector contexts and local actors are fully invested in their success. Further, by facilitating business-led collaboration, the resulting solutions are more financially sustainable and scalable. The success of PLAN and OTACCWA highlights the key role of convening organisations like GAIN, to foster system level collaboration and align businesses in support of local food and nutrition priorities.
Given the effects COVID19 pandemic has had on food systems, it is more crucial than ever that we design platforms like PLAN that build trust, local connections and increase capacity of local supply chain businesses. By encouraging businesses to work together and with other stakeholders to tackle shared issues, we can help pave the way for sustainable solutions like OTTACWA.