Mojisola Karigidi, Founder and Product Developer, Moepelorse Bio Resources
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Subjects of Interest
- Food Security
- Sustainable Development
Electricity is key to agricultural industrialisation of Africa 13 Oct 2022
Food loss and waste in Africa is mostly due to inefficient processing and preservation techniques and drying and storage challenges stemming from inadequate supply of electricity. Erratic electricity supply is a major pain-point for residents and agricultural producers in many countries across Africa.
In the most recent report of the World Bank electrification database for the year 2020, only 48.4 per cent of the total population in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) had access to electricity. According to the report, rural communities in SSA suffer more from electricity shortages with a ridiculously low 28.7 per cent of rural dwellers having access to it. The African continent has over the years maintained its position as the continent with the worst access to electricity globally. Unfortunately, the epileptic power supply or stark darkness experienced in different parts of the continent is mainly due to the failure of African leaders to sufficiently invest in building capacity for the generation and distribution of electricity.
A report by the World Bank in 2021 stated that Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ethiopia had the largest deficit on electricity access. According to the African Development Bank Group, over 640 million Africans do not have access to electricity. To bring the numbers close to home, 85 million Nigerians – that is 43 per cent of the country’s population – lacked access to electricity based on a 2021 report by the World Bank. We have experienced up to seven episodes of national electricity grid collapse in Nigeria in 2022 alone.
Power challenges are worse in rural regions of Nigeria where less than 25 per cent of residents can access electricity. Meanwhile most of the country’s agricultural produce come from farms owned by subsistent farmers in rural communities. Electricity is one of the basic forms of energy for generating heat for drying food items to hinder spoilage, storing, and processing farm produce among other direct uses both on farm and in agro-allied factories.
Complete absence or epileptic supply of electricity directly increases the cost of production for agriculture-related businesses especially if they have to rely on diesel whose cost is at an all-time high. Because majority of these smallholder farmers are not financially capable of maintaining such additional production costs, majority of food items particularly fruits and vegetables that were not sold off soon enough after harvest, which could have been processed into other products or refrigerated to improve shelf life, end up been trashed. Heaps of damaged fruits and vegetables are common sight in farming regions where these perishables are cultivated.
If we must expand food production to promote food security, ensuring constant electricity supply for food production, processing, storage, and value addition is imperative. Longer work hours including night shifts for the processing of harvested crops is essential to increase outputs but this is almost unachievable if producers cannot have uninterrupted daily power supply.
Electrical power on farms is basically used to operate electric motors. Some of the main uses of electricity for agricultural purposes include pumping water for irrigation, refrigeration or freezing, drying of farm produce, grinding of feed, diary production, and so on. Rural farmers who cannot afford drying machines coupled with the high cost of fuel or diesel to power them in the absence of electricity often use direct sunlight for drying. This method can be very unreliable and tedious especially during wet seasons. Delays in getting rid of moisture to reach safe level could promote the growth of microbes resulting into spoilage and big losses for producers.
However, when farmers and food producers have access to constant power supply at affordable rates in their communities, they are encouraged to purchase electric ovens for rapid elimination of moisture. Drying is also an important step in the conversion of some agricultural products to other food products. Crops that can be preserved by drying are plantain, melon, pepper, ginger, cassava, yam, locust beans, maize, and groundnut among others. Drying is also useful for preserving livestock products such as milk, fish, blood meal, hides and skin. Nowadays, there are solar-powered dryers that could serve as useful alternatives but only a few farmers can afford the initial costs of such equipment.
Refrigerator or freezing is another preservation technique to keep fresh farm products for extended periods without deterioration. Refrigeration involves preserving farm products or food items at lowered temperatures above zero degrees centigrade, while freezing requires keeping them at temperatures lower than zero degrees centigrade. Keeping food items at lower temperatures by these methods is more cheaply done with electricity. Refrigeration and freezing make it possible to have fresh food items in good conditions for sale within or outside production area at a later period instead of throwing them into landfills after spoilage. The assurance of future sales will increase farmers and producers’ profit and at the same time limit environmental pollution from heaps of decayed food products. Food products that could be preserved by refrigeration or freezing include fruits, vegetables, meat, milk, fish egg and many others.
For agricultural products to be produced on very large scale in Nigeria, it is essential to make social amenities – in this case electricity, for the processing of the produce into other desirable products – available, accessible, and affordable. One of such produce where we have comparative advantage, in terms of production size compared to other countries, is cassava. Nigeria is the largest producer of cassava roots worldwide, producing over 50 million tones of cassava annually.
In a typical cassava processing plant or factory, for example, electricity supply is required for a number of processes depending on the desired product: garri, cassava flour or cassava starch. For the production of garri, a popular staple taken by almost every household in Nigeria and in many parts of West Africa, processes such as grating of cassava roots and frying or roasting of granulated product are easier done with electricity. For the production of cassava flour, in addition to grating the cassava roots, drying and grinding also require power supply. Carrying out these processes manually or through other expensive means will certainly hinder productivity. In other words, agro-allied industries in the country will have higher outputs as they tend to save more money, time, and energy with constant power supply.
Government must aggressively pursue and invest in energy generation and its consistent supply nationwide. There are numerous benefits of ensuring nationwide access to electricity for economic gains. Efficient power supply services in Nigeria will enhance large scale production and rapid industrialization of the agriculture sector. Agricultural industrialization involves extensive use of suitable technology, proven techniques, and other resources to improve food cultivation and transformation of cultivated produce from the traditional low level of production to automated systems for mass production and storage of edible products. Uninterrupted power supply will drive growth by enabling producers to better adopt available technologies and machineries that could be powered at affordable rates to scale up production.
Sufficient access to electricity has the potential to significantly improve rural economy. Although electricity is not the only condition that must be met to guarantee economic growth, it is a major factor for the establishment of agricultural processing industries in rural communities. Other factors include good road network, proper drainage system, reliable health services, and rural security among others.
The establishments of such factories or industries in underserved communities close to farm locations will certainly improve the livelihood of rural dwellers. More employment opportunities would be created, which will translate to more income for young people in farming communities. Another direct benefit of creating enabling environment for the establishment of agro-allied industries in rural areas where most of our foods come from is the greater chance of retaining young people in these places and reducing the burden of rural to urban migration.
When farmers have industries that can take up their farm produce especially perishable ones within their locality, excessive loss of food items through spoilage will greatly reduce. Direct access to market will increase farmers’ income and reduce poverty while promoting food security by reducing food loss or waste.
Mojisola Karigidi, PhD, a Financial Nigeria Columnist, is a Nigerian biochemist and the founder and product developer at Moepelorse Bio Resources. She is also a Global Innovation Through Science and Technology (GIST) awardee, and an Aspen New Voices fellow.