Editor’s Note: Esther Ndichu is humanitarian supply chain director for UPS. She is based in Brussels, where she manages solutions, operations and support resources for external partners as they prepare for and respond to disasters. She spoke on logistics and humanitarian relief at TED@UPS in September. The opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the author.
In Kenya, the country where I was born and raised, agriculture is the backbone of a bustling and diverse economy. About 15% of the land is fertile and receives enough rainfall to be farmed. In fact, most working Kenyans make their living farming.
Still, despite the abundant natural resources and agricultural know-how, many people go hungry in Kenya. But it’s not because there isn’t enough food. There’s plenty for everyone. It’s because people just can’t get to it.
We see this infuriating irony all over the world – in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and even in the developed world. There are nearly 800 million hungry people around the globe. More than 18 million of them live in places like North America, Europe and Australia. And just as in Kenya, people are going hungry because this food is simply out of reach.
Let’s be clear: There is no food shortage. Hunger is a logistics problem.
This crisis involves all aspects of the supply chain, including storage, transportation, packaging, international shipping, customs clearance, roads, tracking and visibility.
Back home in rural Kenya, I’ve seen this problem firsthand. Food often goes uneaten and wasted because supply chains aren’t delivering small-scale farmers’ surpluses to their local or regional markets. My own uncle would feed extra cabbages to his cows or let them rot in the fields when he couldn’t sell them or get them to market.
This is common in many regions. About a third of the food produced in the world is wasted. Some of it rots in warehouses while it waits to go to market. Some rots in ports and at border crossings waiting for clearance. And some rots in the field because it’s just not economically beneficial for the farmer to harvest it.
In India, an estimated 30% of fruits and vegetables rot before they reach the market. This is due to a lack of cold storage facilities. Meanwhile, farmers in sub-Saharan Africa lose 30% to 40% of their harvested crops each year to insects, mold and moisture. In Africa, the amount of food that goes bad is enough to feed 49 million people.
If this seems avoidable, that’s because it is. A lot of people are working to correct this logistics problem, and I’m proud to be one of them. In my job at UPS, a global logistics company, I work with nongovernmental organizations to repair and strengthen the broken supply chains that could bring food to those who need it most.
Improvements need to be made on how food is stored. We use our influence to encourage trade in emerging countries and use technology to help with what we call “the last mile” problem.
Specific initiatives include a UPS collaboration with the U.N. World Food Programme, a project in Uganda that provides better food storage facilities. Farmers there historically have stored grains in traditional granaries and gunny sacks, which expose food to rodents and rain. Today we’re helping fund WFP efforts to provide more durable silos that have practically eliminated that food loss.
Purchase for Progress is another initiative under the WFP that allows small-scale farmers to access markets and sell surplus produce. Farmers in the Democratic Republic of Congo received cargo bikes to haul food to markets. The bikes can carry far more produce than the heavy sacks they replace.
Programs like these have had a tremendous effect on local trade. For example, The UPS Foundation, the philanthropic arm of our company, announced that it would donate more than $10 million this year to nonprofit, nongovernmental and United Nations organizations to bolster community safety around the world. Among the key areas of focus is an expansion of UPS Relief Link, which is a humanitarian supply chain solution for tracking food and critical relief supplies.
By focusing on solutions, we can get food to the people who need it. They shouldn’t be hungry while food rots just miles away. But success depends on public and private partnerships bringing together governments, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector to invest in supply chains.
If that happens, we can conquer hunger in our lifetime.