From Edmond Gyebi
The effective storage of grains such as maize, beans, cowpea, groundnuts and rice has always been a major challenge for the majority of small holder farmers, not only in Ghana, but the rest of Africa.
It is estimated that close to 70% of grains harvested from farms are mostly destroyed by bruchids or weevils within three months of storage. This is due to the lack of effective storage methods or facilities for farmers and other food dealers.
Most of the farmers contract huge loans from banks to invest in their businesses, but end up losing virtually everything to pests during storage, which can easily be avoided by using the right methods.
It is as a result of fighting this situation that the Purdue University in the United States of America has introduced a new technology called the “Purdue Improved Crop Storage” (PICS), in the form of bags to provide a simple, effective low-cost method of reducing post-harvest losses in cereal crops due to insect infestations in West and Central Africa.
A PICS bag consists of two layers of polyethylene bags surrounded by a third layer of woven polypropylene, thereby, creating a hermetically sealed environment, in which harvested crops are stored. This oxygen-deprived environment proves fatal for insects and bruchids, and prevents them from causing harm to the stored grains.
The PICS technology was developed in the late 1980s by Prof. Larry Murdock of Purdue University, with support from partners in Northern Cameroon, and funding from the US Agency for International Development.
With other funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the technology was introduced to Africa in 2007, with efforts under the initial PICS programme, focusing on using the technology to store only cowpeas.
This initial phase of the project covered 10 countries across West and Central Africa, including Ghana. However, research presently shows that the technology is as effective in all other cereal crops, as it has been for cowpea, hence the reintroduction of the project to ensure that all other cereal crops are saved during storage from weevil infestation.
Benefits associated with the use of PICS bags
Firstly, using the PICS bags to store foodstuff reduces incidents of food poisoning associated with the use of chemicals to store food. This is because PICS bags employ the hermetic system of storage, hence, food stored in them does not need to be treated with chemicals before storage.
This, therefore, eliminates the use of poisonous chemicals to store food, which, mostly turn to cause health problems for consumers in future.
Secondly, the PICS bags have been proven to be a hundred percent effective in preventing weevil infestation in all types of grains, especially, cowpea, beans and maize. For this reason, farmers and other food vendors can now store their foodstuff after harvest, and sell later during the lean season, when prices go up.
According to statistics from various market surveys conducted in the Ashanti, Brong Ahafo and three Northern regions, rural farmers and market women make close to one hundred and twenty percent (120%) profit more, just by being able to store their produce with the PICS bags for up to six months after harvest.
Thus, the PICS bags have definitely created a unique opportunity for them to enhance their economic wellbeing, as well as ensure food security in rural areas.
Another significant advantage of using PICS bags is that, they are relatively cheaper, compared to other methods of food storage. The PICS bags are re-usable once the inner linings have not been punctured in any way. Hence, one PICS bag can be used for several years, and it will produce the same results. As such, using the PICS bags to store foodstuff will eliminate the need to buy chemicals and other storage facilities to store farm produce, which usually balloons the cost of storing foodstuff.
Since its introduction in Ghana in 2010, the PICS bags have provided many benefits to smallholder farmers and other food vendors across the country. During the first phase of implementation, the project covered over 31,000 villages across the Northern, Upper East, Upper West, Brong Ahafo and Ashanti regions, benefitting over 300,000 small holder farmers engaged in only cowpea production. Having been reintroduced into the country, this time to cover all other cereal crops, the impact is expected to be even more exponential.
Considered as one of the most effective storage methods ever introduced, with nearly 100% effectiveness, it is no surprise that farmers and food vendors have quickly adopted the technology, and are using it to store their produce. Mrs. Hannah Nsiah is the 2010 District Best Farmer for the Ejura Sekyedumasi District of the Ashanti Region. She is also the caterer of the government’s School Feeding Programme at the Ejura Methodist School. After years of trying all other methods of storage, both traditional and scientific, Mrs. Nsiah says she nearly gave up cereal cultivation, mainly because of the lack of an effective storage method, until she got introduced to the PICS bags.
“Now, I can even cultivate more than one hundred acres of only cowpea without any fears, because the PICS bags are able to store my grain without loss, no matter how long I keep them.” She also added: “Even the students in my school now enjoy the food I cook for them, because I no longer use chemicals to store my foodstuff. They see no weevils in my cowpea after cooking, and the food I serve them also always smells and tastes great, because I am using the PICS bags.”
Another very significant impact the PICS technology has brought is the creation of a business outlet for agribusinesses and entrepreneurs across Africa. Apart from the project providing thousands of bags to be used on experimental bases by village farmers in chosen regions, Purdue University also provides patent rights to an identifiable producer(s) in each implementing country, to produce the bags on commercial basis for sale to vendors and other agro input dealers across the country, who in turn sell them to make profit for themselves. Since 2007, more than 1.75 million PICS bags have been sold in West and Central Africa alone. In Ghana, nearly five hundred thousand bags have been sold to farmers, predominantly in the three Northern regions and the transition zone, since 2010.
At the moment, there are over fifty input dealers across Ghana who retail PICS bags to farmers and other resellers in very deprived communities in the country. This has helped to create jobs for many people, and also expanded the business portfolios of others.
Even though Ghana has the capacity to utilise more bags than it is currently doing due to the large annual production of cereals across the country, the main challenge has largely been the lack of adequate knowledge and information about the existence and efficacy of the PICS bags on the Ghanaian market.
The other issue has to do with the low interest shown by government and agricultural policy makers, since this technology was first introduced into the country with their prior knowledge.
Meanwhile, several visits to the farms of most of the smallholder farmers in the Northern Sector of Ghana, in particular by the Northern File, uncovered that several thousands of them (smallholders farmers), who are not introduced to the use of this new technology (PICS bags), still store their maize, beans, cowpea, groundnuts and rice on their farms at the mercies of unfavourable weather conditions, stray cattle and bushfires.
On the other hand, the few farmers who have tested or used the PICS bags for the storage of their produce, have not only given several testimonies towards the effectiveness of the bags in promoting quality food storage and food security, but have also made passionate calls on government, the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, and its agencies to take the necessary steps to recommend the use of the PICS bag to all farmers in Ghana, and other state agencies like the National Buffer Stock Company, the School Feeding Programme, heads of Senior High Schools, Prisons Services and other institutions which store food in large quantities for a long time.
This, they believe, will go a long way to prevent the frequent loss of foodstuff to insect infestations during storage, and also reduce the incidence of food poisoning through chemical application, thereby ensuring food security in the country for many years to come.
From Edmond Gyebi