Not Wasting Opportunity: Supporting Youth to Advance FLW Reduction
As other blogs in this theme month have detailed, nearly a third of all food is either lost or wasted each year, contributing large amounts of methane — a dangerous greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere. Food loss occurs between harvest and retail as food spoils or otherwise becomes inedible, whereas food waste is the food thrown away at the retail and consumer end of the value chain. Both of them contribute to global food insecurity and exacerbate the climate crisis.
Food waste is particularly high in countries like the United States, where food waste by consumers is about twice as high as it is at the retail level. Studies in multiple wealthier countries have found that food waste is higher among youth. For undergraduate students in the United States, these higher levels were attributed to a suite of factors, including a lack of access to storage facilities (refrigerators), limited experience planning meal shopping after relying on dining halls and a general apathy about wasting food. This pattern is also found among youth in other wealthy countries like Australia, Italy and the United Kingdom. For this reason, there are campaigns in wealthy countries to teach young people about the consequences of food waste to save money and inspire behavioral change, including campaigns that are run by youth, and policy changes happening at various levels to reduce systems-level food waste.
In lower-income countries, food loss is a much bigger problem than food waste. For example, about 50 percent of bananas are lost in transport from farm to market in Kenya. High rates of food loss are often due to things like pests, challenges during crop harvesting and processing (e.g., aflatoxin contamination), extreme weather and inadequate storage facilities and infrastructure. In these contexts, solutions are more focused on providing resources to producers experiencing high rates of food loss or on improving systems where food is lost (e.g., transportation) so they can decrease that loss, increase profits and improve food security. Many countries where food loss is high also have very young populations with median ages around or below 20 years old. With the right policies and investments, some of these countries may also be poised to enjoy a demographic dividend, where the ratio of the working-age population to the dependent, nonworking-age population is favorable (more people in the workforce than dependents in the population). Many youth seeking to enter and stay in the workforce, however, face a scarcity of high-quality job opportunities and instead must pursue informal self-employment that often involves low pay and poor working conditions within economies still dominated by low-productivity agriculture and related market systems. Young people, due to their age and stage in life and other issues (e.g., gender norms), often have less access to productive resources like land and capital.
Innovations in food loss and waste (FLW), some of which require minimal land and financing to implement, are providing economic opportunities for and with these youth. For example, in 2019, youth in Kiambu County, Kenya, formed Y Minds Connect to confront their struggle to find full-time employment, Y Minds Connect is a black soldier fly production enterprise that provides an important protein source for animal feed. The production of black soldier flies and other insects provide a growing source of economic solutions by recycling nutrients consumed from food waste or food that otherwise would not be eaten by humans and traditional livestock to be reused in the food system. Along with preventing food from reaching landfills and producing methane, black soldier fly larvae also seem able to eat food contaminated with aflatoxins and metabolize the toxins without accumulating harmful levels.
In 2021, Y Minds Connect expanded its business activities to include selling black soldier fly-based pet food and organic insect frass, or insect manure, which is an emerging crop fertilizer. In one week, the group can produce about 600 kilograms (kg) of black soldier flies, valued at around 60,000 Kenyan shillings (~USD $488), along with income generated from for-cost training programs they run for youth and women.
This example from Kenya is just one way that youth can and do play a role in creating and disseminating resources to others in their communities, while discovering the economic opportunity that addressing FLW presents. Isaac Sesi, a young entrepreneur from Ghana, has been finding business success after partnering with USAID’s Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss. The main cause of post-harvest loss in grain is insufficient drying before storage because it creates conditions for fungal growth, contamination and insect infestation. A moisture detection meter called GrainMeter had been developed in the United States, but Isaac used his education and skills to develop a complementary mobile phone app to improve its usability. Youth are also innovators in FLW, as exemplified by Esther Kimani, one of the winners of the 2022 African Green Revolution Forum’s GoGettaz Agripreneur Prize Competition. Esther and her company, FarmerLifeLine Technology, invented a new device that may detect some pests and pathogens in fields using solar-powered cameras.
Although some youth can find career success in food loss and waste reduction, there are still barriers to success. A pilot youth entrepreneurship program in Kenya through the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Processing and Post-Harvest Handling found that youth who were given storage bags to sell made more income on average than those who were not provided with these bags. However, within the treatment group, youth who already owned businesses and were older made more profit than younger, less experienced youth. While the exact drivers of this difference have yet to be understood, the finding demonstrates that youth are not a homogenous group and face varied challenges that need to be well understood and integrated into development programming with them.
Youth can be catalysts for change in their communities when empowered with the right skills, resources and opportunities aligned with their aspirations. To tap into the full potential of youth to address how addressing challenges like food loss and waste can contribute to climate action, we must listen to youth voices, let youth lead, and implement support where it is needed and in accordance with the particular circumstances of diverse youth. Youth are leaders in transforming agriculture and food systems around the world — let’s not let this opportunity go to waste.