The Sad Facts Around Food Loss in Smallholder Agricultural Value Chains: A Deep Dive

Aug 25, 2023 | Commodities, Market Insights & Trends | 0 comments

Imagine a world where we make loads of food. Yet, shockingly, between 690 and 783 million people are still hungry every night. Think about this: we waste or lose nearly 40% of all the food we create. That’s almost half! Have you ever thought about how much food that is? And did you know that in some places, even more food goes to waste? Why is this happening, and what can we do about it?

Can you imagine the impact this loss has on the local economies of the already suffering emerging economies? What would it mean for these communities if we managed to fix these, in many cases, unnecessary losses? The potential for positive change is immense.

As someone who has been involved with smallholder supply chains in Africa for about two years, I find this contrast not just alarming but deeply unsettling. This isn’t just about numbers on a page; it’s about real people, real livelihoods, and the very real potential that’s being wasted.

The direct loss of food in these supply chains translates not only into a missed opportunity to feed the hungry but also represents a direct loss of economic potential for smallholder farmers. As we explore deeper into the specifics of food loss in Africa due to supply chain inefficiencies, it’s essential to keep this broader picture in mind. The stakes are high, and the urgency to act has never been greater.

Defining Food Loss vs. Food Waste

Before diving into the statistics, it’s crucial to differentiate between food loss and food waste. Food loss, or post-harvest loss (PHL), happens along the value chain from harvest to the point where food is available to consumers. In contrast, food waste refers to food discarded by consumers themselves. While developed countries deal with significant food waste due to consumer behaviour and retail practices, regions like sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) face higher proportions of food losses. Here, up to 95% of losses occur before the consumer even buys the crop, highlighting the pressing need to address inefficiencies in the supply chain (Deloitte, 2015).

We each waste on average 74 kg of food every year causing a dramatic food loss

The Clear Reality: Numbers Don’t Lie

The amount of food lost annually due to PHL could feed all the undernourished people globally. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, home to over 230 million chronically undernourished individuals, 30-50% of production is lost at various points along the value chain (Deloitte, 2015). This is a shocking figure, especially when considering that each year approximately 40% of the food produced worldwide is wasted or lost at a cost to the global economy of an estimated $2.6 trillion. That amounts to 2.5 billion metric tons of food – enough to feed up to two billion people (Rockefeller Foundation, 2023). Percentages of post-harvest losses and food waste differ significantly by source, as it seems rather hard to measure. In addition, they differ a lot per crop type. Below a graph with the estimated post-harvest losses by region in 2021.

The Environmental and Economic Implications

Beyond the immediate human cost, food loss and waste have significant environmental implications. The FAO and UNEP have highlighted that food loss and waste account for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions (FAO & UNEP, 2022). This environmental impact is intensified when we consider the water, land, and energy resources wasted in producing food that never reaches our plates.

Moreover, the economic repercussions are profound. For smallholder farmers in emerging economies, the loss of produce means a direct loss of income. This not only affects their livelihood but also obstructs the economic growth of regions that are already facing challenges.

A Deeper Look at Causes

Understanding the root causes of food loss in smallholder agricultural value chains is essential for creating effective solutions. Here are some of the primary factors contributing to this issue:

  • Inadequate Infrastructure: Many smallholder farmers, especially in emerging economies, lack access to proper storage facilities. Without appropriate storage, crops can quickly deteriorate or become infested, leading to significant post-harvest losses. For instance, in regions with high humidity and temperature, grains or coffee stored in traditional bags can become mouldy or be attacked by pests.
  • Limited Market Access: A lack of direct links to buyers often leaves farmers with surplus produce that goes unsold and eventually wasted. This challenge is magnified by poor transportation networks, making it difficult for farmers to access broader markets and get a fair price for their produce.
  • Lack of Modern Farming Techniques: While traditional farming methods have their merits, they may not always be the most efficient. Without access to modern farming techniques and technologies, crop yields can be lower, and post-harvest losses can increase. For example, outdated harvesting techniques or the use of unsuitable tools can damage crops, making them more susceptible to spoilage.
  • Financial Constraints: Investing in better storage, transportation, or farming equipment requires capital, which many smallholder farmers lack. Without financial support or access to credit, they’re often unable to make the necessary investments to reduce losses.
  • Climate Change and Environmental Factors: The growing impact of climate change is undeniable. Changing weather patterns, including unpredictable rainfall, droughts, and flooding, can lead to crop failures or reduced yields. These changes not only affect the quantity but also the quality of the produce, making them more prone to post-harvest losses.
  • Supply Chain Inefficiencies: Even when produce makes it past the post-harvest stage, inefficiencies in the supply chain, such as delays in transportation or lack of processing facilities, can lead to further losses. These inefficiencies are particularly pronounced in regions with underdeveloped logistics and infrastructure.

Addressing these challenges requires a comprehensive approach that looks at the entire value chain, from the farm to the consumer. By understanding the root causes, stakeholders can devise targeted interventions that address the unique challenges faced by smallholder farmers.

A Closer Examination of Value Chain Inefficiencies

The journey of crops from harvest to consumer is full of challenges. While the term ‘supply chain’ often focuses on the logistics of moving goods, the ‘value chain’ encompasses the entire lifecycle of a product, from production to consumption, and all the value-added activities in between. For smallholder farmers, inefficiencies in the value chain can lead to significant losses, both in terms of produce and potential income.

  • Post-Harvest Handling: Immediately after harvest, crops are at their most vulnerable. Improper handling can lead to physical damage, reducing the quality and market value of the produce. In many cases, farmers lack the training or resources to handle their crops optimally.
  • Storage and Preservation: Without access to modern storage facilities, farmers are forced to rely on traditional methods, which might not be effective against pests or changing weather conditions. This can lead to rapid deterioration of stored crops.
  • Transportation: Inefficient transportation networks can cause delays, leading to spoilage, especially for perishable goods. Moreover, the cost of transportation can be prohibitive for individual farmers, reducing their profit margins.
  • Market Access and Pricing: Smallholder farmers often lack direct access to end consumers or large markets. This means they have to rely on middlemen, who take a significant cut, leaving farmers with a fraction of the potential earnings.
  • Lack of Information: Many farmers are unaware of current market prices, best practices for crop handling, or even the potential demand for their produce. This information asymmetry can lead to poor decision-making.

The Triple Win Opportunity

Addressing the challenges of food loss and waste presents a unique opportunity to achieve three critical objectives:

  1. Climate Benefit: Reducing food loss and waste directly impacts the environment. By cutting down on waste, we can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. Enhanced Food Security: The food currently lost or wasted could feed billions. By ensuring more of the produce reaches consumers, we can take a massive step towards eradicating hunger.
  3. Sustainable Agrifood Systems: Addressing inefficiencies in the value chain promotes sustainable farming practices, leading to a more sustainable and resilient agrifood system.

Being aware of the urgence and the possible benefits, let’s now have a look at possible solutions.

The Impact of Urbanisation

Rapid urbanisation, as highlighted in the recent FAO report, is reshaping food systems. As cities expand, the distance from farms to consumers increases, leading to more extended supply chains and greater chances of food loss. Urban areas often lack the infrastructure to handle the influx of agricultural produce, leading to significant wastage. Moreover, urban consumers have different consumption patterns and preferences, which can sometimes lead to increased food waste (FAO 2023).

Towards a Brighter Future: Potential Solutions

While there are solutions to address post-harvest losses, no “silver bullet” exists. Interventions at a single point in the value chain tend to fail. Addressing the challenges faced by smallholder farmers and the impact of urbanisation requires a holistic. This includes ensuring access to loss-reducing technologies, linking smallholder farmers to consistent market demand, providing access to finance, and ensuring proper training.

Here are some potential solutions:

  • Invest in Urban Food Infrastructure: As cities grow, there’s a pressing need to develop infrastructure that can handle, store, and distribute agricultural produce efficiently. This includes cold storage facilities, efficient transportation networks, and modern markets.
  • Strengthen Urban-Rural Linkages: Building strong connections between urban consumers and rural farmers can reduce intermediaries, ensuring fresher produce reaches the city while giving farmers a better price.
  • Promote Urban Farming: Encouraging farming within city limits can reduce the distance food travels, ensuring fresher produce and reducing transportation-related losses.
  • Training and Capacity Building: Offering training programmes on modern farming techniques, especially tailored for urban settings, can help in producing more with less space.
  • Financial Support and Microloans: Providing urban farmers with access to credit can help them invest in modern farming techniques suitable for city environments.
  • Climate-Resilient Farming: With urban areas often facing different climate challenges than rural areas, investing in research that focuses on crops resilient to these unique challenges is crucial.

The Role of Digitisation in Enhancing Solutions

In today’s digital age, technology can play a transformative role in bridging the gaps in the agricultural value chain. Platforms like Cropslist are at the forefront of this revolution:

  • Digital Marketplace: Cropslist provides a platform where farmers, both urban and rural, can directly list and sell their produce, eliminating the need for middlemen and ensuring farmers get a fair price.
  • Access to Knowledge and Best Practices: Through value chain extension services, Cropslist offers farmers modern agronomic knowledge, ensuring they employ the best practices from harvest to sale.
  • Financial Services: Features that allow farmers to manage their finances and access credit opportunities can address the financial constraints many farmers face, whether in urban or rural settings.
  • Soil Health Analysis: Offering high-quality soil health analysis ensures farmers understand their soil’s needs, allowing them to choose the best crops and inputs for optimal yields.
  • Promoting Sustainable Growth: By connecting farmers with consumers who value sustainability and quality, platforms like Cropslist champion sustainable growth in the agricultural sector.

By understanding the challenges, the impact of urbanisation, and the multi-layered solutions required, stakeholders can collaborate to create a brighter future for both urban and rural farmers and the agricultural sector as a whole.


The global challenge of food loss and waste is a pressing issue, with nearly half of all produced food being wasted or lost. This has significant implications not only for the hungry millions but also for the environment and economies, especially in emerging regions like Africa. While there are multiple causes, from infrastructure to climate change, solutions lie in a comprehensive approach that addresses the entire value chain. The rapid urbanisation further complicates the issue, but with the right interventions, both urban and rural farmers can benefit. Digital platforms like Cropslist are paving the way, showcasing how technology can bridge gaps and promote sustainable growth in the agricultural sector.

Join the Conversation

We’d love to hear your thoughts on this pressing issue. Do you have insights or experiences to share? Perhaps you’ve seen innovative solutions in action? Visit our blog for more in-depth discussions, share your opinions in the comments, and don’t forget to share this post to spread awareness. Together, we can drive meaningful change in the world of agriculture.

Sources that have inspired this blog post:

  • Deloitte. 2015. Reducing Food Loss Along African Agricultural Value Chains. Deloitte Insights.
  • Rockefeller Foundation. (2023). Anticipate and Localize. Rockefeller Reports.
  • FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2022. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022. Repurposing food and agricultural policies to make healthy diets more affordable. Rome, FAO.
  • FAO & UNEP. 2022     . Tackling food loss and waste: A triple win opportunity. FAO Website.
  • FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2023. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023. Urbanization, agrifood systems transformation and healthy diets across the rural–urban continuum. Rome, FAO.


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