Cephas Taruvinga. Food Security Specialist with Expertise in Post Harvest Systems
Cephas’ area of competency has developed to encompass analysing the causes of market linkage failures, their impact on the efficient movement of commercial commodities and the resulting post harvest losses.
This expertise has been developed over 25 years of continuous skills acquisition and application in value-chain strengthening, commodity handling, aggregation and storage systems management and developing agricultural trading and commercial systems. These assignments have been achieved through research, developing and implementing technical and policy solutions and providing advisory services to governments, the private sector, development agencies, and farming communities.
He has extensive work experience in Sub Saharan Africa. He has undertaken field work in Swaziland, Lesotho, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Timor Leste. He also provides technical support to FAO, the African Union and regional economic communities like IGAD and SADC.
A Zimbabwean national. Cephas is a nomad where work is concerned and takes hoping between continents to fulfil assignments in his stride. AGN was able to catch up with him via the internet at his current location in Italy.
AGN: Food security and national security are obviously distinct. However, at times views are expressed in some quarters that link the two. It’s no secret African countries have majority poor populations, is any notion of food security that doesn’t impact the poor in a transformative way realistic or pie in the sky? In other words do you consider it highly desirable for policies and mechanisms to be enacted that address both national and food security?
CT: At times in Africa it feels like the 2 are unnecessarily conflated. I’m not convinced both objectives need to be closely tied. Demand side dynamics are better addressed through other levers of government that allow the poor to acquire nutritious foodstuffs on a regular basis as well as improve their economic realities. Without comprehensive, robust government structures in place any piecemeal state interventions to induce those in extreme poverty to utilize agriculture to improve their overall situations are more likely to distort the market and hence hinder rather than enhance growth of the agricultural sector.
AGN: According to the UN, although the majority of the world’s undernourished people are still found in Asia. More than 250 million live in Africa, where the number of undernourished is growing faster than anywhere in the world. We are not on target to meet SDG 2; Zero Hunger by 2030. Even without the impact of COVID 19, SDG 2 would still not have been met. Based on current data and projected trends as highlighted by the multi agency authored report ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020’, the trend is towards an increase in the numbers of undernourished people in Africa, South of the Sahara. Is your own view in line with this standpoint and if so, irrespective of Covid 19, why is the situation worsening at a more rapid rate than elsewhere in Africa?
CT: I believe there are structural issues with regards to governance and market structure that are an impediment to rapid growth of the agricultural sector across the continent. The precariousness of exchange rates can cause substantial headwinds not to talk of climate change and insecurity. All of these things set within a turbulent global economy are proving very challenging. Sadly the data doesn’t suggest that in general, our systems are able to adapt or develop fast enough to cope.
AGN: Can you provide an indication of how the market might be better structured in order to improve the fortunes of farmers?
CT: Reducing the number of market participants between the farmer and the market is one approach I would advocate. I’m not saying intermediaries e.g. aggregators can’t and don’t provide a valuable service, however, in principle I feel the opportunity for small-hold farmers to routinely bypass the middleman would be highly beneficial. When their margins are being squeezed they tend not to complain about those at the end of the chain even though such entities have been known to be quite aggressive where price is concerned, instead farmers take issue with the person in the middle. This setup can lead to some at the end of the chain screening their cut-throat pricing practices behind the participants in the middle when in fact it is not those in the middle that are not playing fair. In this day and age farmers en masse, complaining about the actions of, for instance a conglomerate, are the kind of optics such entities would seek to avoid.
Of course there is an argument to be made about such an approach not being cost effective as it is uneconomical for a conglomerate to purchase one bag of grain from many different sources. While it may seem to fly in the face of economic prudence, I would suggest that this is the pivot point where subsidies should be applied, at least in the short term. I believe the net effect would enable small-hold farmers to develop direct contacts with end users/purchasers and also allow them to develop all sorts of competencies over a period of time and ultimately scale.
I ran a project in Zimbabwe where the use of middlemen by farmers was moderated as a result of market forces. Farmers had an alternative in that they could sell their grain directly to the Grain Marketing Board (GMB). It is now standard practice in Zimbabwe for farmers to be able to deliver a minimum of one bag of grain of a standard specification directly to the GMB. This approach was able to induce a knock on effect in terms of how other players conducted themselves within the market.
I’m not suggesting a heavy handed state interventionist approach is the way to go. I believe a light touch underpinned by sound economic principles that seek to keep things well structured/ordered is a practical and fairer way to get things done. When approached in this way it leads to better outcomes for farmers.
AGN: Depending on the source e.g. FAO or The African Post harvest Losses Information System (APHLIS) etc, figures quoted for the percentage of post harvest loss (PHL) in Africa vary. Obviously different terms of reference, classifications, analytical processes etc are contributors to such differing outlooks. Having said that, self reported PHL figures tend to track lower than comparable classifications from larger organisations, such as those previously mentioned. This points to the fact that measuring post harvest losses is notoriously difficult. Why is that?
CT: It is still a relatively new discipline that is yet to be standardized. As can be inferred from your question, there are as many approaches to quantifying PHL as there are agencies/organisations operating in this area. Cost is always a consideration and PHL studies would be extremely costly to do on a comprehensive and frequent basis. The foremost entity that reports on PHL in Africa does not conduct research across the continent on a frequent basis.
Let’s take maize that has been planted on 1 hectare of land as an example. Once the harvest is complete it would have to be weighed/quantified. Thereafter all of the maize in the field that falls outside of the harvesting process would need to be collected and quantified too. It would be prohibitively costly to undertake this process on a regular basis for all types of crops planted on every hectare of land. This is why estimates, data modelling/analysis are important processes in reaching a determination. Until the process evolves to become a more exact science we will have to make do with what we have.
It would appear farmers are generally not over enthusiastic about engaging in the process in a robust and rigorous manner. I’m inclined to think this is due to them deeming the cost benefit to be unattractive. They seem resigned to accepting marginal/operational losses instead of expending effort on processes that do not yield a substantial enough reward.
There is an element of PHL amelioration that relates to reducing loss from the crops that farmers have actually harvested e.g. improved storage facilities, logistics and so on, this is an area they appear to be more interested in.
Ironically while there is a certain amount of chatter around PHL, specialists such as myself are struggling to get work in this area. Some of my people have left the industry due to a lack of opportunity. Things are undoubtedly different in other parts of the world but generally in Africa, governments appear to be lacking the will to invest long term in PHL remedies. On numerous occasions I have been brought in as a freelancer to devise national strategies for different governments across the continent. Obviously once I handover on completion, that is the end of my input. In so far as I am aware, none of those strategies have been fully implemented in any of the countries that hired me to deliver them up till now.
I’m inclined to think accounting for PHL in the financial planning and analysis of farm management systems as well as establishing it as an area of study in the education system via the curriculum would be beneficial in the long term.
AGN: It is obvious a collaborative joined up approach between various agencies/stakeholders is beneficial. The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) and the Africa Food Security Leadership Dialogue (AFSLD) are clearly steps in that direction. In view of the work you have done at AU, FAO and for various African governments in relation to tackling PHL, what were some of the major challenges you encountered in terms of multi-agency/continental collaboration and programmes?
CT: In so far as agriculture is concerned and primarily my work with the AU, on occasion I have felt the need to doubt how well the organisation is perceived by external bodies/donors. A lack of regard from external actors can cast a shadow over communications when a representative of the AU is seeking to get things done in conjunction with them.
On an internal basis, a lack of continuity is something I found to be disappointing. A body of work will be completed on a project, however, when key personnel change or when things are handed over from one team to the next, this can result in a lack of follow through.
An aspect I found frustrating was the lack of reward or sanction in relation to peer review systems. A lack of enforcement rendered such systems mute. Having said this, it has been acknowledged within the organisation that things need to change and as far as I am aware systems and processes are due to be reviewed with the intention of tightening things up. I do hope this will have the desired effect in terms of eradicating inefficiencies in the system.
It is important to give credit where credit is due. The AU and other continental/regional bodies have made positive strides in the agricultural space as well as elsewhere.
AGN:There is an ever expanding population of qualified Africans that are venturing into the agricultural sector. As someone who is an expert in post harvest systems, what trends do you see towards design and implementation of systems and technologies designed on the continent and are there any standout technologies introduced in recent years that you can highlight?
CT: In terms of the area of PHL I can’t think of any innovations that have arisen from continental efforts. The hermetically sealed bag is an innovation that continues to receive a fair amount of attention as a means of reducing loss, however, it is an innovation that was introduced to the continent rather than one that has resulted from any home-grown efforts.
AGN: The Africa Agriculture Status Report 2020 published by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) highlights some of the irregularities that exist in the sector, for example in a 2018 report on hybrid seeds in Uganda, it was found that only 50% of the seeds advertised as hybrid actually were. Another instance relates to a recent study on pesticides in West Africa which gave rise to the estimate that fraudulent pesticides make-up roughly one third of pesticides sold in the region. In terms of regulation, which key areas can most easily be strengthened in order to achieve an outsize impact?
CT: Capacity to monitor existing regulations is sorely lacking. Facilities to quickly test for adherence to standards are virtually non existent. I’m of the view more needs to be done to boost capacity to monitor and test regulations rather than to necessarily introduce more.
AGN: Is there anything further you would like to add?
CT: Expertise needs to be better supported. African academics and experts want to write, discuss issues and proffer solutions. Unlike our counterparts abroad we struggle to find support that would enable us leverage our knowledge in a way that is more impactful.
AGN: It’s been great talking to you and hearing of your insights. Thank you.