Farmer

Nightmare in Northern Uganda as rot and loss affect farmers after harvest

(Last Updated On: 3 August 2023)

By K. Vincent

Northern Uganda Many farmers in northern Uganda experience postharvest loss and this dilemma go until its consumption. The losses can broadly be categorized as weight loss due to spoilage, quality loss, nutritional loss, seed viability loss, and commercial loss.

The above losses are through environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, composition and proportion of gases in controlled atmospheric storage which play an important role in post-harvest loss of fruits and vegetables.

Walter Ali is an aggressive farmer. He owns an agro-processing company that helps him mitigate post-harvest food damage and the resultant economic loss that most farmers suffer every season.

He has run his company ‘King of Kings Multi-investment Consultancy Firm’ successfully for the past 10 years, but he admits to encountering crop loss during post-harvest handling.

“There were periods when I suffered post-harvest losses,” Ali says, adding that when they were harvesting his maize, he lost close to 10 bags of maize because they were left in the garden. He attributes it to a lack of close supervision of the workers on his part.

“The workers were putting the maize in many points in the garden and not all of them were collected,” he adds. He further says he only came to know of his losses when they were ploughing the same garden for a second planting season and the maize had already germinated.

The losses opened up his mind to look for a solution to avoid recurrence. He thought of processing the sixteen harvested sacks of maize into flour for value addition to fetch a higher price. He lost 40 per cent of his harvest.

Monica Alal, a ground-nuts farmer from Layik village, Lamola parish in Amida West sub-county in Kitgum district says there is a lot of money in growing ground-nuts. However, the seeds are also susceptible to rodents, especially rats while in storage.

“Last year I was selling each bag of my ground nuts at shs150,000 but I lost many kilograms because rats destroyed them,” Alal says, adding that she also lost about two bags of ground nuts because of rain that leaked through her roof of the store.

To avoid similar losses this year, Alal plans to arm herself with cats and rat traps to prevent rodents instead of using chemicals. She says: “I have also learnt that I should always be checking the ground nuts to know if they are attacked by rats.”

Alal explains that it is better to keep ground nuts in an iron sheet-roofed house instead of grass-thatched huts to avoid losses that may come from calamities like wildfire and leaking roofs during a rainy season.

She says she also faces the challenge of storage because the maximum period one can store ground nuts is seven months and beyond that the nuts go bad or get attacked by worms.

This makes her sometimes sell at a lower price because she cannot keep the ground nuts any longer to wait for a price rise.

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Laban Turyagyenda, the Director of the National Agricultural Research Organization’s Ngetta Zonal Agricultural Research and Development Institute, majority of Ugandan farmers experience post-harvest losses and food wastage in one way or another.

Turyagyenda defines post-harvest handling as “all activities done from the time of harvesting (crop) to consumption including the harvesting itself”.

“How you harvest, how you transport from the field to where you are taking, how you are processing it, then the storage, that’s what we call post-harvest handling processes,” he explains.


Komakech Jackson another farmer in Lamola parish Amida West sub-county in Kitgum district. He says the way a farmer harvests, dries, packages and stores his grains has a direct impact on how much he can sell it in the market.

Citing an example of maize, Komakech says: “Once you dry your maize well, you are the one who decides on when you want to sell it, especially at a time when the market prices are high. When you haven’t dried and stored your maize well, you rush to sell your stock at a time when prices are low.”

According to Komakech, the challenge of poor harvest handling that leads to wastage and loss does not affect the farmer alone but also the buyers.

Doreen Akello, a trader at Arua Park in Kitgum Municipality says if grains like maize are not dry enough, they can be attacked by aflatoxins and the buyer makes losses.

“We buy grains from farmers and sell them, so if they are not well dried, by the time it reaches the second buyer, it is already spoiled,” she explains. Akello says in 2021, for example, they sold soya beans for as high as shs3,500 per kilogram but last year there was too much rain. The soya beans didn’t dry well and many got rotten, causing losses.

Challenges

Komakech says his biggest challenge while harvesting crops from the garden is weather related. He says “When there is a lot of rain during harvest, it becomes a problem because we need the sun during harvest.”

He says farmers use poor means of transportation that lead to the loss of crops along the way. While in storage, crops are also prone to attacks from pests and rodents.

The short life span of some crops is also a challenge to the farmer

“For you to sell maize when it is still good, you should keep it for up to six months only. If you keep it for over six months it goes bad,” he told a TND News Reporter in his garden in Kitgum.

Asked whether he is aware of the Warehouse Receipting System, a mechanism that allows farmers to access markets and financial services using their commodity as collateral, Komakech begged ignorance. He however says he is willing to benefit from the system if he is educated about it.

Meanwhile, Ali is aware of the Warehouse Receipting System, but he is reluctant to use it. “The system sounds good but it takes away your right to be in charge of when to sell your crop as a farmer. I am comfortable looking for my market as a farmer,” said Ali.

The government of Uganda introduced the Warehouse Receipting System in 2006 but up-to-date, it is not very popular among farmers despite having 18 such warehouse facilities across the country.

Dr Laban Turyagyenda says the system is good but the majority of farmers are yet to embrace it. He however says he is willing to benefit from the system if he is educated about it. Meanwhile, Ali is aware of the Warehouse Receipting System, but he is reluctant to use it.

He adds that farmers are not yet aware of methods used in the treatment of grains. “If they get the knowledge they are not willing to apply it because they still believe in their traditional methods,” he observed.

What the experts say

Ochira estimates that post-harvest losses account for 30 to 60% of the total depending on the crop, adding that there was a time it went up to 80 per cent.

He says one of the biggest causes of post-harvest losses is aflatoxins. He says aflatoxins are toxins produced by fungi that grow on grains and cereals such as maize, millet, sorghum, ground nuts and in some cases cotton seeds due to poor storage. In the case of Uganda, Ochira says maize is the worst affected crop by aflatoxins with the mean total level being up to 34.1 per kilogram.

According to the Journal of Food Quality published in January 2023, up to 74.2% of maize samples from Uganda were contaminated with aflatoxins in 2010. The publication also indicates that aflatoxins are higher in foods from urban areas compared to those from rural areas.

Ochira says the first step to avoiding food loss and wastage in post-harvest handling is for farmers to know the indicators of maturity in crops. “If you cannot tell when your crop is ready, then you are going to experience losses,” he warned.

The officer adds that good storage should be sufficient to store all the harvested crops. “Some people grow millet but find their granary is too small to store the harvest”. Ochira said

Ochira says as a result, the quality of their produce deteriorates over time and farmers rush to sell them off quickly and cheaply to avoid further loss.

He advised that grains should not be put directly on the floor or wall because the moisture from the floor and the wall will make it rot. “Put the grain sacks on timber, some centimetres above the ground,” he advised.

He further said that farmers can use pesticides that are recommended by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation to store their grains to prevent pest attacks.

Ochira noted that there is a technology called hermetic storage that farmers should embrace because it suffocates pests and their eggs by removing air from the grain. The bags are made from several layers ranging between three and six. He says the hermetic bags are affordable for farmers since they go for shs7,000 each on the Ugandan market.

He further advises that farmers should get the moisture content right so that they can store crops for a longer time. “Usually we store most grains at 10 to 15 per cent because if it goes below 10 sometimes the seeds will die. Farmers use these seeds interchangeably,” he explains.

Dr Turyagyenda says the best way to get rid of aflatoxins is to keep moisture content in grains and cereals below 12% to 13 % by proper sun drying. “Also keep insect activities to a minimum by spraying and storing well,” he says.

He says farmers should thresh their grains on tarpaulins instead of doing it directly on bare ground. He also points out that farmers should begin investing in post-harvest processing machinery for them to avoid losses and wastage during post-harvest handling. “When you thresh rice using a rice thresher, the grains are not broken compared to when you use a stick (for crushing),” he explains.

He adds that for cassava, there is a cassava chipper which is fast and efficient for farmers to use. “A cassava chipper can chip 10 acres (of cassava) in three hours,” he explained.

The doctor said teamwork is highly required in farming for farmers to be able to acquire farm machines. “If you are not able to buy the machine you contribute money as a group and buy a machine which you use in rotation,” he advised farmers.

The doctor emphasizes that the future of profitable farming is in value addition and farmers should embrace the practice if they are to reap from their trade.

Way forward

According to Komakech, farmers have devised local means of preventing pest attacks in storage by mixing Simsim leaves with grains and putting them in sacks. They also use chilli for the same purpose.

“When pests smell chilli, they completely avoid the maize. When you want to sell the maize, you winnow the maize and the chilli separates from the maize,” he explains.

Komakech further says it is important to have a good store and network as a farmer to get a better price for your crops. “I have learnt to network to know where I can get a market for my farm produce. I have also learnt to keep my produce until the prices are high before I can sell them,” he added.

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