Using a Systems Lens to Innovate Past Post-Harvest Food Loss
Post-harvest loss, or PHL, is a problem that primarily afflicts low-resource countries, where inefficient supply chains lead to losses in the quantity and quality of foods as they travel from farm to market. While much of the research and investment in improving food systems is directed toward improving yields, there are opportunities for substantial efficiency gains just by reducing the amount of food that gets lost in the supply chain.
The YieldWise Initiative is a Rockefeller Foundation program that takes aim at this problem. My organization, the Global Knowledge Initiative, is the Innovation Partner in this program, and our role is simple: to identify priority innovations for investment. To do this, we embarked upon a seven-month journey, scanning the globe for PHL reducing innovations and collaborating with more than 50 global experts to cull a list of investible innovations with the ability to achieve impact over the next five years. The culmination of these efforts can be read in detail in our recent report, Innovating the Future of Food Systems.
Our experts chose these 22 innovations for their form and function, but we were curious to see what they thought about their potential to move the needle on a variety of criteria, such as the volume of PHL, the incomes of small-scale farmers, and the impact of agriculture on the environment. While this may seem relatively straightforward, evaluating innovation potential is deceptively complex. This is because innovations aren’t implemented in the same vacuum we typically think about them in, to achieve impact they must be implemented in a real-world context. Thus, to understand their potential we must understand how an innovation fits within this broader context, or what we would call a system.
For value chains in which PHL occurs, this system is composed of producers, processors, packagers, distributors, retailers, consumers, and any number of middlemen acting to get food from farms to markets. These many actors also depend on infrastructure such as energy grids, roads and bridges, and other enabling environment factors (e.g. ease of doing business, cultural norms, and food safety standards). To truly evaluate innovation potential, we have to consider the full composite of these systemic factors.
Without this context, any one of our innovations might seem like it has immense potential to reduce PHL. Take adaptable reefers, for instance. This innovation compartmentalizes standard trucks so that several different crops can each be stored in optimal temperature, humidity, and other environmental conditions. Our experts thought that trucks like these could reduce PHL in a given value chain by 58 percent on average. They also thought that it would be relatively easy to train operators, affordable for a farmer cooperative or small- to medium-sized enterprise, and would share a sizable portion of the benefits with farmers. At a glance it seems like a no-brainer for investment.
When we apply a systems lens, however, the picture becomes more nuanced. First, there is the question of infrastructure. A large enough fleet of trucks to achieve significant PHL reduction would require sufficient roads and fueling stations to facilitate their movement between rural areas where food is produced, and urban centers where most of it is consumed. While there is likely to be enough drivers and would-be-drivers to operate the reefers, they may require training in food safety to prevent cross contamination. But who would provide this? If private sector interests and regulatory landscapes are not aligned, there may be no incentive to train drivers, which could inadvertently lead to public health consequences.
These are but a few of the considerations a systems approach might help us to consider, any of which might prove vital to the success of adaptable reefers in a given country. While our task was to apply this to PHL-reducing innovations, we should apply systems thinking to any kind of innovation to better understand how it might perform on the challenge for which it’s designed. As we set out to improve food systems, or any market system, this holistic approach is vital to improving the success of our interventions.