By Charles Dhewa
The seasonal nature of African food systems implies there are times when particular food commodities are out of season and other times when so much some food is abundant that preservation or semi-processing would increase shelf life by several months. While the absence of value addition is more visible in fruits like mango and some indigenous fruits, mechanizing the preservation of tubers and small grains can also go a long way in averting food losses and ensuring nutrition security in most African countries.
Extending mechanization beyond production levels
For many decades, efforts to mechanize African agriculture have concentrated at production stages where machines like tractors, planters, centre pivot irrigation systems and others have been the main face of agricultural mechanization. Ideally, food processing and preservation would have a more positive impact if mechanization was extended to household levels. There is no reason why food processing and preservation should be a preserve of large-scale companies or parastatals. Technologies should be available at the community level so that the same way farmers are able to buy their own ploughs and motorbikes after a good harvest, they should be able to afford their own small-scale processing machines.
Preconditions for adoption of Small-Scale Mechanization
Based on experience working with mass food markets and food-related SMEs for decades, eMKambo has noted that small-scale mechanization is not just about equipment. It should not be treated in isolation but accompanied with other solutions for promoting traditional grains, fruits, groundnuts and related products. That is how it can transform critical processes such as consumption and marketing of traditional grains, groundnuts and other related products. On its own, mechanization cannot drive agricultural transformation unless the following preconditions are addressed.
Fluid supply chain data gathering and management systems
As is the case with many other value chains across Africa, data related to traditional grains, fruits, tubers, indigenous livestock, diverse kinds of beans and groundnuts are either not available or available in siloes held by individual farmers, government departments, non-governmental organizations, processors, traders as well as in formal and informal markets. Bits and pieces of such fragmented data are on production, value addition efforts, consumption, preservation and many siloes.
Scattered supply chain data makes it difficult for investors to understand the type and level of investment required to mechanize value chains. Any meaningful investment has to be informed by data and evidence. For instance, levels and types of mechanization need data and evidence from production (what varieties and volumes are produced, how, when and where?), transportation (how much is transported from where to where?), markets (how much is being supplied in diverse markets and in what form? Is it in the form of grain, flour, peanut butter or what?).
The most important data and evidence are on consumption (what is being consumed and by who in terms of income levels, gender and other factors related to consumers?). Data and evidence are also critical in influencing policy and investors to invest in small-scale mechanization. Investors need to know the potential Return on Investment (ROI) if they are going to establish an industry that manufactures small-scale mechanized equipment. The data should be kept fluid for purposes of assessing the extent to which the introduction of small-scale mechanization will be generating a positive impact. Key questions that can be answered through data include:
- Is there an increase in production and productivity from small-scale mechanization?
- Is there more demand for traditional grains and groundnuts and related products due to the availability and utilization of small-scale mechanization?
Answering the above questions is critical because we might assume the low adoption of traditional grains is due to absence of small-scale mechanization when there are other hidden factors like low demand.
Market Development and Business models
Understanding the demand landscape for products produced through small-scale mechanization is very important. Evidence from mass food markets shows demand for traditional food products has not been increasing to match the demand for maize and wheat products in most African countries. While the demand for groundnuts has been increasing, the push factor has not been a newfound appetite for peanut butter but an increase in the price of cooking oil, forcing most consumers to use peanut butter as a substitute. Most of these trends in the supply chain, distribution and markets for traditional grains need to be understood at a much deeper and granular level.
Overall, the demand for traditional grain and groundnut products has been declining especially among the young generation who prefer other non-traditional foodstuffs. Consumer tastes and preferences built over time are turned into consumer behaviour. Anything that becomes a behaviour takes equally or much more time and effort to reverse. Data and evidence can demonstrate how improving small-scale mechanisation would take advantage of farmers’ production and processing practices, but efforts have to be directed at making sure the demand side responds or changes proportionate to investment in small-scale mechanisation.
It is therefore very important to come up with Unique Selling Propositions (USPs) and innovations that will boost demand for traditional grain and groundnut products among the young generation. Equally important is building business and pricing models that attract investment in mechanisation, production, marketing and consumption. Government institutions like institutional canteens, hospitals and prisons can also take the lead in promoting the consumption of traditional grains and groundnut products.
Without sufficient research, African policymakers may mechanize the value chains but still face challenges in changing the consumption behaviour of the young generation. This is because there is a belief or perception among the young generation that fast foods and imported foods are superior to local foods such as traditional grains and related products. How do we reverse that consumption behaviour to increase demand for traditional food and groundnuts? Increasing demand will attract more investment in small-scale mechanisation. On the policy dimension, national trade promotion organizations have to be visible in supporting traditional grains and groundnut products in national, regional and international markets.
Need for support from key economic actors
While the absence of small-scale mechanization is widely acknowledged, there has not been sufficient political will by governments and tangible support for the entire value chains by development agencies. For instance, government subsidy programs continue to target very few value chains like maize, wheat and soya bean which are more like substitutes for small grains and peanut butter. By supporting these few substitutes, governments and private sector actors are giving these commodities a competitive advantage in the market. This means that promoting small-scale mechanization may not gain enough traction unless government, development agencies and the private sector come on board.
In spite of being economic drivers for some districts in the dry regions, traditional grains and groundnuts have not received support from production to markets compared to other value chains. Some of the support can be in the form of stimulating demand by mandating that traditional grain products be consumed exclusively at gatherings by government departments and political congresses rather than conducting meetings in hotels at places like Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Munyonyo Speak Resort in Uganda where foreign food is the main staple.
Increasing demand for workspace
Manufacturing and trading of small-scale mechanization equipment certainly require working space. The same for processing and marketing of traditional grain and groundnut products. Getting workspace for micro, small and medium enterprises has remained a nightmare in most African urban centres. Providing working space will ensure small-scale mechanization is driven by local institutions instead of importing equipment and trying to adapt equipment that will have been designed for different contexts.
To that end, there is scope for encouraging local universities to work with local artisans and inventors in properly designated industrial parks unlike consigning such important work to backyards. Processing of key commodities like groundnut into diverse products is mostly being done in the back yard yet the majority of low-income consumers also deserve better standards from a food safety perspective. Unfortunately, African organizations responsible for enforcing food standards are often not seen in the current workspaces which are considered informal and therefore inferior. On the other hand, big industries and wholesalers are receiving preference in terms of working space because policymakers think these are the only institutions doing value addition and contributing to economic growth.