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Kai Ryssdal: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has brought a little quantitative analysis to bear on the Obama administration’s farm policy. The White House budget that was released last week would take subsidies away from big farming conglomerates. And instead that money would go to childhood nutrition programs. Or as Vilsack put it today, there are 30 million hungry children in America, only 90,000 farmers. Those numbers don’t necessarily hold true in other countries, though. In Tanzania 80 percent of the population works in agriculture. Despite high global food prices that are high, most Tanzanians are still poor because much of the food grown there goes to waste. Gretchen Wilson reports now from Dar es Salaam.
gretchen wilson: Over a grill in a city park, Frank Baha sells roasted cassava, a starchy root vegetable that’s now in season.
Frank Baha [translation]: Right now, there’s plenty of fresh cassava in the rural villages. But the roads are really bad. So it costs a lot to get it to the cities, where people want to buy it.
Cassava’s a major staple food in Africa. But it has a brief shelf life. Once it’s harvested, it goes bad in less than a week. Rural farmers don’t have electricity for refrigerators. So they’ll sell huge bags of their crops for just pennies, because whatever’s leftover will spoil.
That’s the way it is with a lot of food in Africa — it’s feast or famine. So governments, NGOs and anti-poverty groups want to increase food processing systems in Africa.
Happiness MCHOMVU: The estimate is 40 to 80 percent of farm products are lost before reaching the consumer.
Happiness Mchomvu is with the Small Industries Development Organization, a government-backed group that wants to increase Tanzania’s capacity to process food. She says canning, drying or freezing can help get African produce out of the rural areas.
MCHOMVU: Through processing you definitely increase the shelf life and then you can even transport it to where the market is.
Ideas like this have caught the attention of Western philanthropists. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is spending $13 million to teach rural farmers how to turn their raw cassava into flour.
Nicholas Mlingi is with the Tanzania Food and Nutrition Centre.
Nicholas MLINGI: This project is actually intending to improve the livelihoods and income of the farmers.
And there is a demand for that flour. It’s cheaper than imported wheat flour, and local bakeries can use it to make bread.
MLINGI: The small farmer from the village will benefit, if he’ll get linked to the market.
Activists say processing can improve farmers’ returns in international markets, too. Most of Tanzania’s biggest export crops, like coffee and cashews, leave the country in raw form. They’re loaded onto container ships at the port and shipped to India, China or Vietnam for processing. And that’s where the real money’s made.
Krishnakumar PILLAI: More you export raw form from any country, you are losing actually the opportunity to add value to that material.
Krishnakumar Pillai is with Olam Tanzania Limited, the country’s biggest cashew processor. He employs 6,000 women to remove cashew shells. He’d like to hire more. But 70 percent of cashews here are exported for processing.
PILLAI: Which is actually exporting employment to India, so at the end of the day, Indian women are getting the opportunity to work on that 70 percent.
In Tanzania, those lost jobs have led farmers to push for simple machinery to preserve food. The government’s also encouraging foreign investors to open food processing factories. The hope is to raise Tanzanian farmers out of desperate poverty.
In Dar es Salaam, I’m Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.
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