February 29, 2020

Where to Start: Design AgTech Solutions to Scale

Join the Siemens Design Challenge for a chance to win one of two $10,000 first-place awards.

Bob Rabatsky has tapped into his lifelong experience scaling agricultural technology in emerging markets to deliver these succinct insights into the design of innovations to minimize post-harvest loss. Mr. Rabatsky began his career in the 1970s as a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching at a technical agricultural institute in the Democratic Republic of the Congo back when the country was called Zaire. He took his skills to the international development consulting firm Chemonics, first working in Warsaw, Poland, then in Washington DC, USA, where he served as a Global Division Vice President working on agriculture and infrastructure projects. But the bulk of his career was with Canada’s financial intelligence unit FINTRAC (Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada). There, Mr. Rabatsky was a director of Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation, a USAID-funded program that fosters partnerships for investment and distribution of farming technology in the developing world.

Now in his semi-retirement, Mr Rabatsky has taken on the role of adviser to the Siemens Design Challenge. His insight into agricultural technology can help design teams find a foothold as they begin researching potential new technologies to reduce post-harvest losses. We asked him for context and advice for designers participating in the challenge.

E4C: Would you share an example of the impact of post-harvest loss that you’ve seen?

BR: The examples are numerous, with every crop, and with most stages from harvest through to consumption. (Fun fact: most post-harvest losses in developing countries take place between the farm and the consumer, in developed countries most food losses are post-consumer… Think of all that food cafeterias and restaurants throw out. Or better yet, think of the back of your fridge!)

Let’s take a typical maize farmer in Kenya. Maize is the predominant food crop in rural Kenya, everyone grows it. harvest is by hand, and typically this is very thorough even though harvest and shelling the maize from the cob is done by hand. Harvested maize is one of a small farmer’s key assets. They will store it in their hut, in burlap bags and they treat the grain with an insecticide (Actellic super) to combat the two main insect pests, grain borers and weevils. this must be done every three months to be effective. without this treatment, most of the maize would be damaged in three months time, losing its market value, however farmers would still use the maize for household consumption. Not a great outcome. So traditional on-farm storage requires the use of insecticides, which farmers reluctantly use.

E4C: What solutions have you seen that made a difference?

BR: Hermetic grain storage has brought a revolutionary change to smallholder grain storage. Several companies offer products in the Kenya market, including PICS, Grain Pro, AgroZ, and IRRI. The first bag to arrive on the market was the PICS, developed by Purdue University and produced/marketed locally by Bell Industries. The project I managed funded the market entry trials to test farmer acceptance of PICS. This is a polyethylene bag consisting of three layers which can be sealed to prevent oxygen to enter. Any live pests or molds in the sealed bag will die, preventing damage to the stored grain. These bags, while inexpensive ($2.50 each), were approximately two times the cost of using a gunny sack and insecticide. However, since insecticide treatment was required every two to three months, longer-term storage of six months or more was less expensive using PICS. And the bags could be reused over multiple seasons. Another selling point to small farmers was that hermetic storage eliminated the need for insecticides, an important selling point. Hermetic bag sales in Kenya have exceeded two million units in the past five years.

E4C: Broadly, what are the limitations of the technologies that are available now to prevent food losses?

BR: Limitations are many, but I’ll focus on three: practicality of the technology, cost vs. benefit of the technology, and market access.

Practicality of the technology goes to how and where it will be used and the infrastructure that will support the technologies use. An obvious need of many post-harvest technologies is energy. you cannot run machinery, dryers, coolers/freezers without power. So an innovative aspect of a technology would be how to address the absence or unreliability of energy. Solar, wind or mini-hydro solutions have been developed to power generators that run equipment. Technology can be designed to mitigate the lack of reliable power, such as solar air driers for grain or fruit, or passive refrigeration for cooling.

Thinking about the cost of a technology to the benefit it brings cannot be overemphasized. An effective technology has to be marketable, and it must be sold based on the advantage of the technology over existing practices. This can mean decreasing the volume of losses, improvements in the efficiency of a process, or other factors.

A technology also must be brought to market, sold and then supported post-sales. Who is the target market, how will the market learn about it, and how will the product be maintained/repaired once in the market? These are cost factors that must be considered as part of the development phase.

E4C: What would you hope to see as a result of this design challenge?

BR: I would love to be surprised. Historically we are at a time where we have a good grasp of the challenges of food loss, there are a lot of smart people working on solutions who in many cases have lived these challenges as they were growing up, and the interest of and access to investors is really unprecedented. Getting that good idea to market successfully will require a multidisciplinary team with the motivation to both do good and make money.

E4C: What advice can you offer design teams setting out to solve this problem?

BR: A couple of things to consider would be first really study the challenge that you are trying to address. This not only means looking at the specific issue a technology would be able to address, but to analyze the cultural and economic context that may be contributing to the food loss issue. Second, build a team which is multi-disciplined. In addition to a food technologist and an engineer, you should consider including a social scientist and a business/marketing specialist who can help brainstorm and address issues in the target market.

E4C: Your work at Fintrac was in financing and distributing technology for farms. How does the work of scaling up a technology compare to its design?

BR: Our mission was to take technologies that had been proven in a market, typically in a developed economy, and help move it into emerging markets that were typically comprised of thousands of small farmers, fractured and inefficient supply chains, small companies and limited resources. We did not just target smallholders… we did work with distributors and end markets, but the technology had to benefit smallholder farmers in some way. There is really no shortage of technologies out there that could solve many or most of the food waste challenges. But they may not be the right scale (too large typically), or not appropriate for the conditions, market, etc. Designing a technology that meets the market requirements, then testing, then demonstrating/marketing, and finally supporting a sales/repair network in the market, are costly and time consuming. If these steps aren’t executed, then you have a nice idea sitting on a lab shelf somewhere.

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