Africa has an astonishing food waste problem--this is what one group is doing about it

"Disco Soup" Nairobi sheds light on the eye-popping fact that food from Africa is rejected because it is not easy on the eye of European markets

EVEN though sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the highest prevalence of undernourishment, affecting about one in four people, between 30% to 40% of food produced on the continent for human consumption is lost or wasted. 

In December 2014, this concern brought together hundreds of residents in Nairobi for the continent’s first “Disco Soup” - an international grassroots movement to raise awareness of food waste in the hope that it will be rolled back on a continent that suffers in the midst of plenty. 

Organised by Marah Koeberle, a resident with a background in the food industry, the volunteer-led event in Kenya focused on food waste, what is rejected due to the cosmetic standards of European supermarkets. This is basically food that was not the right size or shape, or simply unattractive. 

In Kenya alone, horticultural companies claim that they waste on average between 15-35% of their crops because of the high specifications on appearance by European Union supermarkets. This is also the case for every tonne of fruit and vegetable grown in Kenya and exported to destinations in Europe, Middle East, South Africa and South East Asia where approximately 35%-40% of food waste occurs. 

Unfortunately, due to high transportation and storage costs, rejected produce is not re-distributed and is instead used as feed for pigs and cows. This is in a country where an estimated 1.3 million people are food insecure and in need of assistance. 

By contacting one of the leading grower-exporters in the international horticultural industry, organisers of Disco Soup Nairobi were able to gather fruits and vegetables from various small holding farms, large export pack houses, manufacturing plants and even restaurants for the event. 

Once the food was gathered, participants cooked it, ate it and also distributed it to street-children in the city - all while enjoying tunes from local DJs and musicians. 

Globally, food waste happens through the entire supply chain and roughly one-third of the edible parts of food produced for human consumption, gets lost or is wasted. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), that is about 1.3 billion tonnes per year. In industrialised countries food waste  (222 million tonnes) is almost as high as the total net food production in sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes). 

Food waste for cosmetic reasons is common across the continent but there are also vast quantities of food “loss”. Food loss refers to food that gets spoilt along the supply chain and in sub-Saharan Africa, food loss per capita is estimated at 120-170 kg/year. 

In most African nations, like most low-income countries across the world, these losses (40%) tend to occur early in the food supply chain - between the field and the market. Unlike industrialised countries, much less food is wasted at the consumer level. The causes of this food loss are predominantly poor practices in harvesting, careless handling of produce, lack of storage or poor storage conditions and transportation. 

Even though Nigeria is ranked 16th on the global tomato production scale, accounting for 1.2% of the total world production of tomatoes, an alarming 45% of tomatoes harvested in the country is lost due to poor Food Supply Chain (FSC) management. 

Knowledge gaps
Even when countries have more reliable modern storage technologies available, such as the case with the grain sector in Nigeria and Ghana, workers at these facilities may lack proper training. This has translated into significant post-harvest losses of up to 50%, attributed to the lack of adequate knowledge and implementation of sound grain storage management.

The situation in North Africa, and the near-East, is equally astounding. Even though the region relies on imports to meet over 50% of its food needs, it loses up to a third of the food it produces and imports. This includes about 14-19% of its grains, 26% of all fish and seafood, 13% of its meat, and 45% of all fruits and vegetables.

Reducing high food losses and waste is critical to improving food availability, achieving food security, and reducing stress on natural resources. An imperative enterprise considering the high population growth rate that Africa is forecasting, with almost 2 billion babies expected to born in the next 35 years.  

Disco Soup originates from the Slow Food Youth Deutschland, who devised the concept - “Schnippel Disko” - preparing otherwise-wasted vegetables within a party-like atmosphere. Tristram Stuart, the founder of “Feeding the 5000”, a campaigning group that champions Disco Soup, and a leading figure in the global anti-food waste movement, attended Disco Soup Nairobi where he shared his experiences in the war against global food waste. 

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