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Help! I can produce but cannot sell my vegetables: Cry for market access

It is estimated that about one third (+/- 1.1 billion tonnes) of all the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted each year.

A survey conducted among the smallholder vegetable farmers in the Gauteng Province of South Africa showed that smallholder farmers lose large volumes of sellable vegetables through a lack of access to markets.

Fruits and vegetables are the hardest hit, recording a waste of up to 45% of the produced quantities. As the products change hands among value chain actors, not only are costs incurred and some value is added, but ample food leakage is experienced in the form of food losses and waste. A lot of research on food losses focuses on postharvest food waste and losses. Others have highlighted production losses which are largely attributed to pests, diseases, and weeds. However, prevalent among the smallholder farming community, are disproportionate crop yield losses that can neither be attributed to production nor postharvest losses.

The farmers produce crops to full maturation, but fail to harvest due to the lack of available markets for selling of their produce. In fact, they wait for customers to walk in and buy, but unfortunately this is not big enough a market. What a paradox! Vast amounts of food are wasted, while millions of people are going hungry. Surely, food losses exacerbate food insecurity. Due to this challenge, the reduction of food losses and waste along the supply chain is a much-sought-after solution to mitigate economic losses, and food and nutrition insecurity. The ultimate goal of every producer is to realise continuous harvests with crops in transit to the market.

Causes of farm crop losses

The causes of crop losses and waste at field level include a lack of knowledge on crop losses, stray animals, drought, weeds, insect pests, plant diseases, poor establishment/maintenance and wild fires. While these causes are easy to identify, there is a general reluctance and helpless spectating of sellable crop wasting away due to lack of market access among the smallholders.

A survey conducted among the smallholder vegetable farmers in the Gauteng Province of South Africa showed that smallholder farmers lose large volumes of sellable vegetables through a lack of access to markets. In certain instances, vegetable losses were as high as 88% of the sellable produce that could not find its way to the market. Much of the unharvested vegetables remained in the field, slowly losing their appeal and attractiveness to the buyer, as well as a reduction in quality parameters that do not meet the retailer’s specifications (see photos below). Some of the unharvested vegetables were still wholesome, but the irregularity and inconsistency of harvesting negatively affected the sizes of leaves for sale in formal markets.

The crops that are left to remain in the fields do not only deplete soil minerals and nutrients, but are also promoting the build-up of pests and diseases, and become cosmetically unattractive and, thus, do not attract any buyers.  There are several National Fresh Produce Markets (NFPMs) in the Gauteng Province, such as Johannesburg, Tshwane, Springs and Vereeniging… When prices are high on NFPMs, volumes of the products traded are low and vice versa, emphasizing the advantage of off-season production where and when possible.

However, smallholder traders need training in business and financial skills to successfully enter these markets, while effective and affordable transport systems to these markets are not in place for these traders.

Awareness and knowledge of field food losses

The conditions of many smallholder farms either are a manifestation of the farmers being unaware of field crop losses, their lack of knowledge of field crop losses, or are signs of desperation combined with despondency. Can the conditions of the farms and crops be an indirect depiction of the agricultural advisory services together with other farmer support organisations’ impact? Can it be a painting of the real picture of lack of market access in its brightest hues? Is there any hope for the producers? There is hope for the smallholders!

Practical ways of reducing field food losses

  • Field crop losses represent a waste of finances, labour and other resources, including time. Is there any hope for a farmer who has produced marketable vegetables? Linking the smallholder producers to the markets is of fundamental importance. Several approaches can be adopted to address the loss of marketable or sellable food crops at field level. These include:
  • Linking the producers to the markets by farmer support organisations. Connecting farmers to markets increases their willingness to invest, not only in achieving increased product sales and profit, but also in finding strategies to reduce more losses.
  • Smallholder farmers need to change their business approach where they try to sell what they have already produced. They should rather be producing in response to the identified market demands.
  • Engaging in some form of processing and value addition in order to increase the shelf life of the agricultural produce.
  • The government should champion a farmer support plan that will assist farmers in acquiring affordable and appropriate cooling equipment or storage facilities to ensure substantial reductions in fresh produce losses.
  • Promoting an understanding of the issues in local value chains, coupled with the application of cost-effective ways to connect with other value chain players. Identification and analysis of the different specific opportunities presented by different retail markets.
  • Need to match production levels with that of the identified demand to reduce sources of losses.
  • Multi-stakeholder collaborations and partnerships in identifying solutions to reduce the risks faced by the smallholder farmers. Public-private partnerships involving the organisations that are already supporting the smallholder farming community in ensuring product distribution to markets and the provision of the necessary technical advice and infrastructure.
  • Support for off-season production to meet the demand for vegetables during the times when competition is low in the markets, with chances of fetching higher premiums.
  • Improved transport systems to markets that are linked to market access, including arranging transport to an identified market of vegetable produce that has been pooled together from different producers. The time taken to get the produce to the market with minimal damage should be factored in.
  • Farmer training on the calculation of food losses is key in raising awareness on the importance of proactive and accurate data collection. This will facilitate the engagement of effective precautionary measures in preceding production seasons and years.

By Portia Ndou, Bridget Taruvinga and Christian Phillipus du Plooy (Agricultural Research Council)

Acknowledgements: The authors greatly appreciate the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (GDARD) for funding the survey.

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