By Kizito Makoye
KILOSA, Tanzania, June 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The huge stock of maize Jumanne Masele put aside last year was enough to spare his family from hunger and earn him cash to repay his debts - or so he thought.
A short while after Masele had finished stuffing the grain into a traditional storage cocoon, he realised much of it had been infested by fungus as ground moisture from heavy rain seeped in through the bottom of his store made of dried soil, sticks and grass.
"There was nothing I could do to salvage my grains - it was a total loss," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Despite a bumper harvest, the farmer, 44, from Mbumi village in the east Tanzania district of Kilosa lost most of his crops, threatening his family's food supply.
"I still don't know how to store my harvests - traditional techniques are no longer effective as the grain easily rots when we get unexpected extra rains," Masele said.
Agriculture is the backbone of Tanzania's economy, providing work for more than four fifths of the population. The rural sector accounts for over half the country's gross domestic product and export earnings, according to national statistics.
Yet as Tanzanian farmers struggle to market their crops, nearly 40 percent of grains are lost to poor storage and extreme weather, costing the nation $332 million every year, the government says.
Efforts are underway to curb these losses. Since 2013, smallholder farmers in nine African countries have been getting help to trade staple foods across borders and store their crops better under a five-year programme managed by Development Alternatives, Inc (DAI), a U.S.-based company that works with the private sector to overcome barriers to development.
As part of the FoodTrade East and Southern Africa programme, funded by the British government, a £3 million ($4.3 million) grant was announced in April to enable 70,000 smallholder farmers in Tanzania and Uganda to access regional export markets.
Those two countries produce a surplus of staple foods almost every year, whereas Kenya only grows enough to feed itself one year in five, according to lead agency Farm Africa.
STEP TO SELF-SUFFICIENCY
Until recently, high tariffs on trade within East Africa meant it was cheaper for Kenya to import crops from outside Africa, but recent policy developments have removed barriers to regional trade, Farm Africa said in a statement.
Since 2012, grain trade policies under the East African Community Customs Union have made it easier for farmers to sell their produce to nearby countries.
Steve Ball, country director for Farm Africa Tanzania, said the new project's push to promote food trade was a step towards agricultural self-sufficiency in the region, and would help lift tens of thousands of small-scale farmers out of poverty.
Such farmers grow 80 to 90 percent of staple crops in the region, Farm Africa noted.
Local experts hope the FoodTrade scheme will curb post-harvest losses while increasing the amount of grain crops for sale outside the peak harvest season.
"(It) will help poor farmers who don't have the resources to invest in better storage facilities for their crops," said Edith Kija, an agricultural consultant and extension officer.
Lucy Mtemvu, Masele's neighbour in Mbumi, who also stocks maize, rice and beans while waiting for market prices to rise, lost most of her crops last year and the year before after they were invaded by rodents.
Local farmers struggle to find a ready market for their produce as millers who previously bought the grain now rarely come after the roads were destroyed by rains, she said.
A 90 kg bag of rice fetched 140,000 Tanzanian shillings ($64) a few years ago. "But now you can hardly get 90,000 shillings - if you are lucky enough to sell," she added.
CREDIT FOR FARMERS
Tanzania's fight against hunger received a major boost from the government's "Big Results Now" initiative which raised maize production from 100,000 hectares (247,105 acres) per year to 350,000 hectares in 2016. But it is only now that the effects of poor grain storage are becoming clear, analysts say.
Tanzania, through its National Food Reserve Agency, owns 33 storage facilities with a total capacity of 246,000 metric tonnes, but officials say that is insufficient.
Farm Africa and its partners will help Tanzanian and Ugandan smallholders store their surpluses of rice, maize and beans.
The farmers will initially sell products to more than 100 moisture-controlled depots with the capacity to stock up to 500 tonnes each and carry out quality checks.
The farmers will also get access to G-Soko, an online marketing platform run by the East African Grain Council, through which they can sell their maize or beans across the region via certified warehouses.
Once issued with a warehouse receipt, farmers can use it as collateral to obtain finance. That will prevent them having to sell for a low price after harvest and buy high later.
The project will also enable smallholder farmer cooperatives to sell their grain collectively, and build strong links with grain traders, incentivising them to grow a larger amount of better-quality crops.
Jacob Kilasi, who lives with his family in a mud-walled shack in Mbumi, lost most of his harvest two years ago when the village was engulfed by floods, destroying stocks of food.
To avoid further losses, Kilasi - who grows maize, rice and pineapples - resolved to sell his crops earlier when prices are still low.
"If I wait, the grains will be infested by insects, and I will get nothing," he said.
Another FoodTrade project in Kenya has attracted 10 warehouses and five banks which have so far provided credit against warehouse receipts for up to 150 million Kenyan shillings ($1.49 million).
"I can't wait to take advantage of this new innovation - it will probably help me sell my maize to Kenya before it's spoilt," said Masele in Tanzania.
($1 = 0.6933 pounds) ($1 = 2,186.0000 Tanzanian shillings) ($1 = 100.8000 Kenyan shillings)
(Reporting by Kizito Makoye; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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