Boosting the vegetable sector in Africa
Market interventions coupled with technical, organizational and institutional innovations are key, says WorldVeg Director General Marco Wopereis
Africa’s growing cities increasingly seek safe and reliable sources of quality vegetables. A vibrant agri-food sector in rural and peri-urban areas can tap into this demand to provide wholesome and affordable food for city dwellers—and in the process, fight malnutrition, create employment, and reduce poverty on-farm.
This message was at the heart of a keynote presentation delivered by Marco Wopereis, World Vegetable Center Director General, on 8 August 2016 during the 3rd All-Africa Horticultural Congress at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria. Participants from across the continent gathered at the IITA campus to present ideas, explore options, and address bottlenecks for exploiting horticulture’s potential to expand and enhance local economies and livelihoods.
Per capita consumption of vegetables across sub-Saharan Africa is below the minimum (200 g) recommended by the World Health Organization, and rates of undernutrition are rising rapidly in West and Central Africa in particular. Significant strides in alleviating undernutrition can be made through efforts to balance diets, Wopereis said. “Iron and vitamin A deficiencies could easily be addressed through increased consumption of leafy vegetables,” he noted.
Aggregation of production, processing and marketing capacity is essential to supply the continent’s vegetable markets year-round and in a consistent and reliable manner. Three organizational models to enable such aggregation can be distinguished: large, vertically integrated corporations—mostly seen in East Africa, and in particular Kenya—that focus on exports; out-grower systems linking smallholder vegetable growers to a lead firm; and smallholder cooperatives, often selling to local markets.
“Boosting the vegetable sector in Africa and ensuring it contributes to safe, nutritious and healthy diets requires technical, organizational and institutional innovations to support these organizational models,” Wopereis said. “The World Vegetable Center provides the technologies, strategies and advice to ensure Africa’s farmers and markets can thrive.”
Technical innovations from seed to screenhouses
The Center develops improved breeding lines for a range of vegetable crops resistant to biotic stresses (reducing the need to apply pesticides), with improved shelf life (reducing spoilage) and tolerance to abiotic stresses due to climate change (drought, heat, flooding). These breeding lines are taken up by public and private sector partners. A recent study found that WorldVeg-developed tomato varieties accounted for 87% of commercial tomato seed production in Tanzania and generated economic gains of US$ 254 million from 1993-2014.
In sub-Saharan Africa, virtually all vegetables for local and regional markets are produced under rainfed and non-protected systems, and yields are generally far below what would be possible with improved management practices. “Open-field systems without protective structures do not allow for precise management, and vegetable growth and development can be severely disrupted by drought or insect pests,” Wopereis said. “It is important that low-cost, smallholder-focused protected cultivation techniques are made accessible to vegetable growers in Africa.”
Investing in drip irrigation, netting or introduction of simple to more complex greenhouse structures will radically change the production environment in which farmers operate, and open up opportunities for intensification and diversification. Appropriate small-scale postharvest technologies to reduce postharvest losses—which can be as high as 50%, depending on the crop—include simple improved containers to reduce mechanical damage during transport, varieties with longer shelf life, and low-cost cold storage structures. Processing to extend storage time while preserving quality helps even out supply and demand patterns and associated price fluctuations.
Domestic quality driven by consumer awareness
Vegetable markets in Africa are mainly decentralized local markets with no clear standards or quality control. There are well-defined incentives for famers to adopt standards and food safety regulations if they are targeting high-end export markets, but incentives for farmers to adopt such standards for domestic markets are lacking. “Introduction of good agricultural practices (GAP) for local and regional markets only can be brought about by making consumers more aware of how food quality affects their lives and well-being,” said Wopereis. “The growing wealth in urban centers in Africa will mean that consumers will be willing to pay more for trusted vegetable products, offering a clear income generation opportunity for vegetable growers.”
While the public sector can play a facilitating role in market development, private sector involvement must be stimulated and enhanced, starting with the seed sector. There is a great need to strengthen the capacity of all value chain actors and R&D facilitators, to ensure all are aware of the most up-to-date information and technology.
Institutionalizing a safe, healthy food supply
Safe, nutritious and healthy diets, access to health services, and clean environments are key elements for food and nutrition security. Food quality, including safety, needs much more attention at all lifecycle stages, from production, postharvest, processing and marketing to consumption.
The World Vegetable Center has good experience with the packhouse system, where produce of farmers is aggregated, cleaned, sorted, bagged, labeled and commercialized for specific markets. Working with a group of farmers allows discussing and testing new technologies and approaches across the value chain, from production to processing to marketing.
Access to quality seed is one of the main bottlenecks for boosting Africa’s vegetable sector. Private sector- led seed systems development needs to be stimulated across the continent. Once established, the seed sector for vegetables should ideally also develop adequate breeding capacity to ensure vegetable seed is best fit to prevailing environment and market conditions.
Protected cultivation systems are absolutely essential to boost Africa’s vegetable sector, Wopereis said. Policy measures must be taken to facilitate introduction of such systems in Africa—at first through imports, but gradually developing local production and maintenance capacity, especially for low- to medium-tech systems. There is a clear need to stimulate the production of biopesticides in Africa to reduce the current over-reliance on chemical pesticides and facilitate adherence to emerging and existing GAP standards.
It is important to keep in mind that most of the fruit and vegetables consumed by poor households are produced in household gardens. The contribution of household gardens to food and nutrition security is often neglected in agricultural research and policy, which tends to focus on market-oriented agriculture. However, evidence shows that household garden interventions can have a significant and positive effect on household vegetable consumption and the nutritional status of household members vulnerable to micronutrient undernutrition. “The potential of household gardens needs to be further exploited in research and development,” said Wopereis. “Such household gardens may also become gateways to more commercially oriented agriculture.”
Awareness of the importance of vegetables in people’s diets, and in particular for children below five years old, is crucial to ensure these children can realize their full potential. Wopereis mentioned the USAID-funded Feed the Future Scaling Project implemented by the World Vegetable Center and partners in Mali, in which great emphasis is placed on comprehension by rural populations of the importance of balanced diets for health, in particular for children, and the nutrient content of fruits and vegetables. The Center also emphasizes the importance of sanitation, water quality and hygiene to ensure household gardens provide nutritious and also safe food. Evidence shows that this approach indeed leads to significantly greater consumption of vegetables at the household level.
“The Center’s research outputs must be put to the test and successful ones scaled out in an equitable manner, in particular reaching out to women who form the bulk of vegetable producers and marketers in Africa,” Wopereis said. “For varieties this is relatively straightforward, but most technologies and approaches are knowledge intensive and require participatory action research with partners in the field.”
The conference concludes on 12 August.
STEPS FOR ACTION
Increase consumption of leafy green vegetables to alleviate iron and vitamin A deficiencies
Diversify vegetable production systems with nutritious traditional crops such as amaranth, jute mallow, spider plant, and African nightshade
Focus on food safety and quality
Use improved vegetable varieties: resistant to pests and diseases – able to tolerate drought, heat, and flooding – long shelf life
Promote protected cultivation to increase yield and reduce need for pesticides
Promote drip irrigation for efficient use of scarce water resources
Plan for postharvest: Use varieties with good transportability and shelf life; sort, grade and pack vegetables to add value; process vegetables to increase the year-round food supply
Adopt local and regional GAP standards
Link farmers with market information, so that they better understand supply, demand and quality requirements
Stimulate the private seed sector
Promote safe vegetable production in household gardens, along with awareness of the importance of nutrition, clean water, sanitation and hygiene