FSNet-Africa fellow Dr Fides Izdori shares insights on how to reduce losses along the tomato value chain.
Tomato is a common and important food item for most households across the world. Rarely does a grocery list not include tomatoes. It is a staple ingredient in food preparations and is also commonly eaten raw. The average person consumes at least twenty kilograms of tomatoes in a year. Economically, tomatoes are a lucrative business due to high and constant demand throughout the year.
In Tanzania, tomatoes are the horticultural crop most widely grown by smallholder farmers in terms of planted area, providing employment to women and youth. In addition to being sold at local markets, tomatoes are also a common roadside market commodity, providing income to women, who mostly dominate these markets.
Despite constant high demand, tonnes of harvested tomatoes are lost every year and never reach the consumer. This causes shortages of tomatoes in the market, driving prices up and causing financial strain for consumers. Women, who are usually in charge of food preparations, suffer the most and are forced to change family menus to fit budgets – sometimes compromising on nutrition. For farmers, post-harvest loss means lower income and reduced ability to repay loans utilised for seeds and fertilisers. This also reduces their ability to employ labourers. They end up requiring fewer labourers to work longer hours, which often leads to the exclusion of women labourers who have family duties. The wasted tomatoes also end up in waste piles and landfills, resulting in environmental pollution.
Why and where do losses occur?
The causes of tomato losses across the supply chain (from farms through transport, storage, markets and, finally, to consumers) are numerous. Lack of markets is among the top causes in developing countries. Rain-fed agriculture dominates production; hence, farmers plant at the same time (when there is optimal rain for tomato crops to grow) and also harvest at the same time, thus flooding the markets. On top of this, there is poor information-sharing across the supply chain, with farmers especially lacking knowledge about potential markets. This makes piles of rotten tomatoes a common feature in tomato-farming areas during post-harvest periods. Similar scenes are common in areas with poor road infrastructure that are inaccessible during the rainy season. Other causes of waste along the supply chain include a lack of good harvesting techniques, limited cold storage facilities to counteract adverse weather conditions, poor packaging, and ineffective logistics.
Roadside market in Duma (Morogoro, Tanzania), dominated by women carrying their young children.
The causes of food losses described above demonstrate that losses do not only occur at one point in the supply chain – for example, at the farm level. Although reported farm-level post-harvest losses are the highest in sub-Saharan Africa, there are still significant losses at other stages of the supply chain before produce reaches the consumer, such as during packaging, transportation, loading and off-loading, and at the retail stage. The cumulative result can amount to losses of up to 40% of the harvested tomatoes in Tanzania. This is a significant loss, especially when factoring in the costs associated with land, water, and other resources required for production.
My project: collaboration for post-harvest loss reduction
It is clear that all actors along the supply chain have a role to play in reducing tomato losses. Moreover, the described causes of losses can largely be linked to lack of investment and/or lack of implementation of good practices in the supply chain. However, the food sector in many developing countries is dominated by small actors who have limited resources to invest in loss-reduction technologies due to lack of access to finance and credit. Therefore, this study proposes a collaborative approach in the application of interventions to reduce food loss. Collaborations along the supply chain between actors at different levels – such as farmers, traders, and processors – present advantages such as shorter supply chains, enable power- and information-sharing, and reduce price and profit differences. On the other hand, collaborations among actors on the same level – for example, among farmers – increases their bargaining power and enable cost sharing (for example, in procurement of cold storage).
In this light, supply-chain collaborations have the potential to reduce post-harvest losses by (i) increasing market efficiency through linking buyers and sellers, (ii) combining efforts among supply chain actors to access finances for investments, and (iii) increasing bargaining power for price of production inputs, such as improved seeds and technologies, including cold storage. An important aspect of this study is to empower smallholder farmers through farmer groups in order to increase their collaborative advantage and enable them to form stronger and more successful collaborations.
What can you do to reduce tomato losses?
Everybody feels the impacts of food losses – either directly or indirectly. Therefore, reducing food losses is everyone’s duty. Simple, practical steps that we can all apply in reducing food losses include the following:
- For farmers: pre-cooling tomatoes before transferring from farms.
- For transporters: simple interventions such as vents in the trucks and travelling during cooler hours of the day to avoid the load deteriorating rapidly during transport. More advanced interventions include the use of plastic crates and intelligent packaging that tracks produce using sensors to monitor change in variables related to quality deterioration.
- For retailers: better ways of displaying products that reduce exposure to temperature changes.
- For consumers: changing their preferences/behaviour with regards to the merchandise they are willing to buy (e.g., buying ripe tomatoes to refrigerate/ freeze at home).