The global postharvest startup

by Nigel Banks, Postharvest.Co Limited, New Zealand

This post is part of the ADM Institute’s #PreventPHL blog campaign, following up on the First International Congress on Postharvest Loss Prevention. To read more posts in the series, click here.

OK, we’ve finally woken up with a bump to realise that we have a short window to avoid massive climate change and destabilising food insecurity. That’s good; hopefully just in time!

Now to fix up the mess…… fortunately, it’s a simple problem! At least, it is when viewed at the whole planet level. Of course, complex solutions will be required on many fronts but a simple view of the planet-level building blocks of the strategy is very helpful.
Banks 1Historically, four groups in our global community (Fig. 1a) have not shared a common view:

  • Consumers, the stomachs of our food supply systems, have not been delivered enough nourishment and enjoyment for a low enough price.
  • Deliverers, the arms and legs of our supply systems, have been struggling with insufficient knowledge and other resources. As a result, we have had uncontrollably variable and shamefully high levels of losses across the past five decades.
  • Investors, facility and brand owners in our supply systems and governments, have had little incentive to track towards genuine sustainability because the cash return on investment on tackling postharvest losses doesn’t meet historical governance priorities.
  • Leaders and innovators, change agents in our supply systems, have failed to get buy-in on improved practice because there is insufficient recognition of the value of change.

With the occupants of all four corners of our community operating with a scarcity paradigm that keeps them well separated, lacking a shared aspirational “heart”, it has looked all but impossible the fix the challenge of postharvest losses. And with a 25% explosion of population on the cards for 2050, the scope for disagreement has looked set to grow.

But vision is a powerful thing and the simplifying, all-embracing, completely overwhelming vision that will create absolute empathy among all of these groups is about to race towards us across the horizon (see sneak peak comparing current (white) and future (green / purple) focus in Fig. 1b). Editor’s note: The text under the white box reads, My team needs more.

Viewed through this new lens, measured in our new currency (air to breathe in place of money in the bank), there will shortly be a completely shared interest in reducing postharvest losses (Fig. 1c).

Instantaneously, we have a global strategic plan with vision, mission and values clearly defined. More good! So now the minor matter of the operational strategy ….

Banks 2Getting to zero postharvest loss will take a significant chunk of time, measured against the amount of time we have available. It really is quite a large problem and working up the solution will begin with baby steps: we are virtually in total startup mode. And in line with the lean startup movement, we can expect our own journey to comprise many steps, each one the turn of a cycle: a BUILD, MEASURE, LEARN loop (Fig. 2a).
Apart from conflicting motivations for groups in our community, the reason we have struggled to get this to work historically is that we have often failed to implement systems that can learn. We have worked with individuals, parties, actors who, besides lacking a shared “heart” also have no central system that functions like a “brain” to learn and works in an integrated way to implement what it learns. So, in addition to the community that provides the “why” for all that we will seek to do to reduce postharvest losses, we need a “how” – a system that will build, measure and learn its way to actually reducing postharvest losses. Having a system that enables us to innovate effectively is actually more critical to our global postharvest startup than starting out with the best ideas. Better ideas emerge readily with repeated learning cycles. Without a learning system, potential learning experiences are completely wasted on us.

Of course, the thing about starting with baby steps is that the first years are going to deliver painfully little tangible improvement. Far from achieving a large reduction by 2020 as many at the conference seemed to believe possible (Fig. 2b), we are much more likely to reach 2020 with virtually no visible improvement in performance (Fig. 2c). But we COULD approach substantial reduction by just 2030. By that time, we could well be steaming through the improvements and at large scale. We would then power through conference expectations of reductions in postharvest losses by 2050 and ease towards zero losses a few decades later, with our children’s grandchildren’s futures looking more rosy and less toasty.

So it is going to be easy; we just need:

  • A global food system heart that will deliver us the “why”: the shared vision, mission and values for all stakeholders
  • A global food system brain built of a thousand, million BUILD – MEASURE – LEARN loops, each of which works locally and, when integrated together, delivers us the “how”.


The blog entries in this #PreventPHL series are by students and members of the PHL Prevention community of practice. The opinions expressed are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the ADM Institute. In addition, none of the statements should be considered an endorsement of any person, product, or technique by the ADM Institute.

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One Response to The global postharvest startup

  1. NeverIdle storage December 22, 2015 at 5:05 pm #

    Thank you Nigel Banks, Postharvest.Co for the global postharvest chance to suggest until “Rights create the incentives for technology adoption” (Easterly, 2015) and level the playing field for SSA growers, production will be “economically suboptimal” (Godfrey, 2010), the glass half empty and the time line too short. For example how will mere:
    • technology to reduce PHL be significant when soap, this centuries technological breakthrough was late navigating protocol to disrupt Ebola in West Africa (Ruxin, 2014)?
    • Aflatoxin caused “stunting” (Cardwell, 2015) convince donors to not ignore the calories from “SAFE food” (Cardwell, 2015) needed to power the humans growing and harvesting densely nutritious fruit and vegetables, because technocrat protocol and illiterate growers see “no immediate economic benefit” (Ms S. AflaStop)?

    On the other hand the glass is half full and the time line to long because:
    • mobile phones have been very disruptive in SSA (Gates, 2014) and maybe an “Uber like storage” (SIANA, 2015) innovation will disrupt PHL
    • innovation will occur as farmers (FPSA, 2012) and stored grain researchers (Proctor, 1994) and innovators (Butler, 1939), teaching (Kalita, 2015) and extension (Kitinoja, 2015) will illuminate how SSA NGO cultural advisers prioritize the potential protocol of metal “hermetic” chemical free family sized silos and plastic bags and enable, for example, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC, 2011) to report
    “Grain kept in metal silo alone, metal silo treated with actellic and phostoxin, invariably kept the grain safe for six months without any loss; leading to the conclusion that there is no additional benefit to treate grains with either actellic or phostoxin if metal silo alone is properly used. Therefore, promotion of metal silo alone is recommended without combining with dust or fumigant insecticides” (page 15) and
    “oxygen in the metal silo could be depleted by burning a candle inside the silo, while the in-let and out-let lids are sealed with a rubber band” (Page 17).

    However, the new SDC validated FAO (2015) Technical manual, 1.1 Introduction finally acknowledges, for example the AccessAgriculture’s (@2011) practical training video “Let’s store our maize well” which needless to say never ever mentioned one single candle, now without explanation states: “a family-sized metal silo [can] is an effective ally for food security” because it “allows effective fumigation with non-residual fumigants.”

    Thank you ADMI for the chance to comment, 

    William Lanier


    AccessAgriculture, 2011. “Storing Cowpea seed” [training video]

    Butler, 1939. Breathable metal storage. [web page] Retrieved:

    Cardwell, K. (2015, April 9). Aflatoxin Identifying the Way Forward Kitty [The TOPS Program’s Conversations about Aflatoxin]. Retrieved:

    Easterly, 2015. “Recognizing the rights of the poor” by William Easterly (author of “The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor”, ) in “The Big Idea, The World in 2030” Susan B. Glasser. January 22, 2015. POLITICO Retrieved:

    FAO, 2015. “Technical manual: for the construction and use of family-sized metal silos to store cereals and grain legumes” [Manual). FOOD AND AGRICULTURE ORGANIZATION OF THE UNITED NATIONS. Rome, 2015

    FPSA, 2012. Flat Pack Silos (or Bins) Australia.
    Retrieved: and

    Gates, M., 2014 “Cellphones for Women in Developing Nations Aid Ascent From Poverty” [New York Times Essay]. Retrieved:

    Godfray et al, 2010. REVIEW Food Security: The Challenge of Feeding 9 Billion People. Science 327, 812 (2010); DOI: 10.1126/science.1185383 Retrieved:

    Kalita, K. 2015, March. Mastery Badge for a total average score of 95% quizzes and peer assessments. Global Postharvest Loss Prevention: Fundamentals, Technologies, and Actors [ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign].

    Kitinoja, L., 2015 “Extension specialists and trainers: still the weakest links in our efforts to reduce postharvest losses” [ADMI Post] Retrieved:

    Lanier, W., 2015. A Qualitative Discussion about the Utility of Staple grain Logistical Platforms. [Poster] The First International Congress on Postharvest Loss Prevention, Oct 4-7, 2015, Rome, Italy Proceedings Page 238.

    Ruxin, 2014. “Step One to Fighting Ebola – Start with Corruption” [New York Times blog] Retreived:

    Proctor D.L., 1994. FAO Consultant “Grain storage techniques Evolution and trends in developing countries“ FAO AGRICULTURAL SERVICES BULLETIN No. 109. GASCA – GROUP FOR ASSISTANCE ON SYSTEMS RELATINGTO GRAIN AFTER HARVEST. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Rome, 1994 M-17 ISBN 92-5-1 03456-7.

    SDC, 2011. “Effective Grain Storage for Better Livelihoods of African Farmers Project Completion” [Report to International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center]. Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. June 2008 to February 2011. Retrieved:

    SIANA, 2015. Post-harvest loss: Low hanging fruit no one wants to pick [Interview]. Retrieved:

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