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close this bookSPORE Bulletin of the CTA No. 35 (CTA Spore, 1991, 16 p.)
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Small-scale crop processing: opportunities and benefits

Almost all crop and livestock products require some form of processing after harvest. This maybe in order to extend storage life or to facilitate cooking. Rural based processing offers opportunities in terms of employment, adds value to products, reduces waste due to spoilage and encourages development of technical and marketing skills in villages. Increased processing of agricultural products could result in substantial benefits for national economies.

Communities in subsistence economies rely on local - resources and skills to survive. Processing of traditional crops and livestock products into foods, beverages, oils, hides and fibres is well developed and most adults acquire a range of skills from de-husking and grinding cereals, washing cassava or extracting sago (the edible pith extracted from sago palms), to expressing oil from nuts and seeds or rendering animal fat to make tallow. Skins are cured and yarn spun from cotton, wool, goat hair and sisal. These skills are easily and quickly lost with the introduction of cash economies and the opportunity-to purchase ready-processed products.

Centralized large-scale or industrial processing appears to offer economies of scale, uniformity of production and release from physical drudgery. But the cost to small rural communities is high: producers may be too far from a large processing centre to bear the cost of transport; roads may be bad and transport scarce; and villages may lose the opportunity for developing rural industries and offering employment. Processed products, transported back to remote villages, are expensive to buy and this, combined with the lack of employment opportunity, drives many people to seek work elsewhere. This rural exodus is deplored by governments which recognize its dangers, yet policy makers too often favour centralized rather than dispersed industrial development.

Employment from processing

Agriculture is a seasonal activity and even where there are two seasons annually there are peaks and troughs in labour demand. After harvesting labour may not be fully employed if crops are sold and transported to a distant centre for processing, whereas local processing at village level will offer employment to many of those not immediately required to cultivate the land.

In Senegal rice has been transported increasingly to large regional mills and rural people have subsequently lost employment income and the value of the rice-bran by-product. In addition, when they have to buy rice in future, they will contribute to the transport costs of taking rice to the mill and then re-distributing the milled rice throughout the region. A similar situation developed in Malawi, where the maize, groundnut and soya used to manufacture the national weaning food, Likuni Phala, was transported to Blantyre and then transported back to the rest of the country in its processed form.

Now the UN World Food Programme and the Netherlands Government are assisting the setting up of several small Phala processing plants throughout the country, which will utilize locally grown ingredients and distribute them locally. Farmers throughout the country will have the opportunity to sell produce, employment will be created and unnecessary transport costs eliminated.

Processing activities vary in their demands for skills and strength: some require the strength of adult male physiques but in the main most processing activities can be done by women, thus supplementing family incomes, and by youth of both sexes, who then have an alternative to migrating to towns.

Other forms of processing that can provide employment opportunities are tanning of leather, spinning and weaving fibres, pressing nuts and seeds for oil, and making tallow from animal fat. Further opportunities exist where oil and tallow may be converted into soap and candles.

Various estimates have been made of the losses incurred between harvest and end-use of agricultural products: poorly dried grain becomes mouldy, as do roots and tubers; in the absence of refrigeration Drying cashew a' milk, meat and fish spoil rapidly unless dried or smoked or, in the case of milk, converted to cheese; fruit and vegetables must be eaten fresh or converted into some form of juice, pulp, pickle, chutney, jam or dried product. Some authorities estimate that up to 50% of production may be lost due to lack of, or inadequate, processing; losses are particularly high when yields are high, yet the major thrust of research and development is to increase yields rather than to make optimum use of what i already available.

Improving food self-sufficiency

Processing can also extend the period of availability of food products, reducing the "hungry gap" between harvests and mitigating the seasonal rise in food costs a these times, which puts so many people a nutritional risk. Several new technologies and refinements of traditional procedure are now available for rural people to use at village level. Few require more than cement, wire, equipment that can be made by a blacksmith, water and sun, salt, sugar 0 smoke. Simple innovations are also transforming some traditional crops into novel food products.

Root crops are highly perishable yet can be processed relatively easily. Techniques developed in Latin America at the Centre Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT) have not only made long-life, sun-dried cassava chips and cassava flour available to rural and urban consumers throughout the year, but have also provided a source of easily stored and low-cost feed for cattle, pigs, poultry and prawns. This in turn has led to an expansion in livestock production and aquaculture with the double benefit of further increasing employment and animal protein for human diets. Cassava tubers are sliced into chips, which are then dried first on a concrete floor and later on wire drying trays, which helps to keep the chips clean.

Sago is now being made into tasty sago biscuits by village women in Indonesia, while sago "pearls" are produced by villagers in Sarawak for local and export markets. Other sago products being developed include bread, cereals, and snack foods such as "sago pops"; these resemble prawn crackers which are based on cassava starch. Some other crops in ACP countries can be processed along similar lines.

Sweet potato is another valuable tuber and Britain's Natural Resources Institute (NRI) has been working with the Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP) on processes whereby villagers can extract starch and produce noodles. The starch is extracted by first wet-grinding the fresh roots using a cylindrical rasper. Water is poured continuously onto the rasper to produce a slurry comprising a fibrous residue and a suspension of starch. The fibre is separated using a nylon screen and the starch allowed to sediment for about five hours, after which it is sun-dried and stored. Noodles are made by preparing a dough and forcing this manually through holes in a metal "former". The threads of starch fall directly into boiling water where they gel and are later washed and sun-dried. Every stage of the process is within the limits of village technology.

Cereal crops that could offer greater food security where rains are erratic include sorghum and millet. Although of equal nutritional value to maize, they have been displaced by maize because they have been associated with bitter tastes due to the presence of tannins, and because they are laborious to process. Now promising processing techniques have been developed which are suitable for village-scale technology and these could help sorghum and millet regain lost ground and so provide both more food and employment in drought-prone parts of Africa. (See Spore 29, October 1990, page 6).

New products, new asses

Increasing urbanization, and a trend for men and women to work some distance from their homes, is leading to a demand for ready-to-eat snack foods. These may be savoury or sweet. In the Philippines the National Science and Technology Authority has produced a series of leaflets to promote guava juice, banana sweets, soya sauce, dried fish, pickled mango, coconut oil and tomato sauce. The ingredients and equipment required are listed and the process is clearly illustrated step by step. The text is available in English or Tagalog, the national language.

In Bangladesh soya milk is being used as a substitute for cows' milk to make a wide range of traditional sweetmeats, which play an important part in the national diet. Again, processing of soya to make soya milk and the manufacture of sweetmeats is within the capacity of village processors using the most basic implements and utensils, and the marketing of sweets and sweetmeats develops the entrepreneurial sector in village economies.

Cows' milk and soya milk can also be used to make a wide range of cheeses, which have a much longer shelf-life than milk and are more easily transported. Smoking of cheeses can extend shelf-life even further and provide alternative flavours that will reflect the wood used and the smoking process.

Even by-products may find a place among village processed products. In Honduras the cashew apple has been developed into a crystalized fruit, which has a substantial market, whereas in the past this false-fruit of the cashew was discarded because of its bitter taste. The bitterness is removed by washing the fruit in 1% sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) for three minutes and then rinsing in clean water. The fruit is pressed between boards, simmered in a strong hot sugar syrup and drained and dried. The product now brings additional income to cashew nut producers and supports a thriving processing industry.

Benin women cross their palms with silver

In Benin 98% of palmnut processing is done by village women, showing that post-harvest work can provide a living and thereby help to keep the population in the villages, even though the trend is to migrate to the towns.

In Tadokome, in south-west Benin, an association of 33 women buys clusters of palmnuts from the region's planters and process it into oil which is then exported to neighbouring Togo and Nigeria. Despite their rudimentary: and small-scale processing methods, the oil produced is of very high quality. This means that the women are able to compete with the industrial oil processing plants in the region, which, despite heavy investment, can scarcely supply more than the requirements of the soap factories.

The process is very simple: the nuts are cooked on woodfires, trodden by foot (the only part played by men) in wooden boats or old canoes, and heated again to separate the oil. From April till June the village produces approximately 240 litres of oil per rnonth, although only 60 litres per month are produced out of season. An attempt in 1987 to put production on a semi-industrial footing failed because the machinery provided by the Local Initiative Support Fund was not suitable for village conditions. The women went back to their tried, trusted, and cheap traditional methods.

Future possibilities

Many of the now-familiar brand names of food products in Europe and the United States originated in cottage industry and village bakehouse enterprises started by individual entrepreneurs, both men and women, during the past century or more. Local resources were matched with local skills and enterprise to meet, and even create, local demand. Large investment and complex technology were not needed and were, in any event, either not available or not affordable. Initially, growth was slow and was financed largely by re-investment of profits. A similar pattern is emerging in a growing number of countries with agriculture-based economies. If the trend car be encouraged by government policies appropriate extension, and availability of modest levels of credit, the variety of benefits that would result at both local and national level could be very considerable.

Gari: mechanization to improve sales

Gari is the dry, toasted flour produced from cassava after laborious processing. In this form i tis a convenience food which is particularly popular in Togo and neighbouring countries. None the less gari is not profitable for the women who make it. Mechanization of some of the process would make their job easier and would ensure a better product market.

"We're obliged to sell to the traders in order to pay the growers who supply us with cassava and insist on cash payment. But without these traders we wouldn't have the money for our own needs, say the women who produce gafi. They usually sell their product to the traders who travel the length and breadth of the interior buying bags of gari which they then retail. But these trading women set their own price levels which are barely profitable for the producers. Only those producers who have easy access to a market can retail their own gari and make a profit.

Some of the women producers from a number of districts have got together to form associations to look after their interests. This has resulted in shops being built in many of the villagers to facilitate the marketing of gari. In spite of all this, however, there are still difficulties in ensuring a regular level of sales.

Gari is plentiful between March and September and, during this period, even the highest quality does not fetch more than 100CFA/kg, while five kilogrammes of cassava at 10-15CFA are required for every kilo of gari, so it is obvious that the work is barely profitable. But in the dry season, when the ground is hard and the cassava roots are difficult to extract, gari becomes more scarce, the price doubles to 200CFA, and the whole operation becomes economically viable.

If production could be set on a more regular footing, then both producers and traders would be pleased. However, processing by the traditional method can only be done on a very small scale. The work is laborious and, if done manually through all the stages, very tiring. Cassava roots are peeled with a knife and washed, then grated on a metal grater. The product is then stored in sacks and allowed to ferment for three days. It is then pressed by large stones, broken up, and the fibres removed; after that it is sieved and cooked. In all, there are nine stages and long hours of work. If they work non-stop for a week, the women can make up to 60kg of gari. Once it is processed into flour, cassava will keep for months or even years if simple precautions are taken. However, it is difficult to build up stocks while fresh cassava is cheap because, after putting some aside for family use, the rest has to be sold to pay the growers.

The Institut National des Plantes a Tubercules (National Tuber Institute) has been trying for some years to perfect small machines which could be made locally and which would both simplify and speed up the manufacture of gafi. After tests at INPT, sieves, graters and presses have been handed over to some of the women's associations. Else where a complete cassava-processing production line on a semi-industrial scale, designed by the Centre d'Etudes et d'Experimentation Agricole Tropical (CEEMAT) and the French company Gauthier, is now at the evaluation stage. The more sophisticated the equipment, however, the more expensive it is, and the current low price of gari does not make it an economically viable proposition.

There are financial constrains even with small, locally made equipment. Women are reluctant to use this grating machines setup in some villages because what they have to pay for their use must be set against their often meagre earnings. INPT is well aware of this problems and is seeking to help women make more profit from their work. More regular and plentiful production would mean that export markets, in neighbouring countries or in Europe, could be tested out. At present one French company buys two tones of gari per month which sales easily in Paris and university towns where many expatriate African students are delighted to find a taste of home.