Dr. Patricia Pessu is the Executive Director of the Nigerian Stored Products Research Institute, a research agency whose mandate is to enable better and more efficient agricultural storage facilities in order to curtail losses which farmers incur from improper handling and storage upon harvesting their produce. In this interview with Eromosele Abiodun, she speaks on a wide range of issues including efforts being made to popularise the various innovations being churned out by the institute. Excerpts:
Would you say that Nigeria pays as much attention to proper management of agricultural harvests as it ought to?
Nigeria is making progress managing agricultural harvests. However, we need to pay more attention to effective planning for more availability and access to finite food resources for the future. You may recall the food crisis that ensued during the peak of the COVID 19 pandemic. Food security is core to every nation and it is not just about food availability, but inclusive of food safety and its access. At the Nigerian Stored Products Research Institute (NSPRI), we believe Nigeria needs to do more in postharvest management in order to ensure food security.
One criticism that Africans generally receive is that we have heavy supply of sunshine throughout the year, but that we do very little with this sunshine. Has your institute been able to come up with any creative ways of using solar energy in postharvest food storage for instance?
Solar energy is a cheap and accessible source of energy and NSPRI has many on-going research projects on optimal use of solar energy. The institute has developed technologies that are powered with solar energy. The Solar Tent Dryer, the Parabolic Solar Dryer, the Mobile Tent Dryer, and the Hybrid dryer all use solar energy to dry agricultural commodities. Our solar tray dryer is effective for drying fruits and vegetables at household level. The solar tent dryer is effective for drying high volume low value crops such as paddy rice, and for drying small size low fat fish such as Whittlings which is like the popular Panla or Oporoko that is a delicacy in many parts of this country. The parabolic solar dryer is suitable for drying various crops with enhanced heat retention and shorter drying rates. All these dryers ensure that dried products are free of contaminants, and toxins in food or crops which are usually associated with improper drying. In other words, safety of the food products is guaranteed. With the adoption of these dryers our people will no longer have to dry these agricultural commodities by the roadside where animals and dust contaminate the dried products.
Talking about fruits and vegetables, rotten fruits are a very common sight at Mile 12 Market in Lagos. But it is even worse in rural areas where huge quantities of fruits and vegetables get rotten or withered badly before they get to the market. In fact, in Nigeria, if a fruit is not in season, you cannot get it to buy. What is NSPRI doing in this regard?
NSPRI has a reputation for its long-standing commitment to capacity development of our citizens in the area of proper harvesting, postharvest handling and storage issues to ensure high food quality and safety. We have and continue to train farmers on proper harvesting techniques, which is a major concern in postharvest loss management of fruits and vegetables. Proper packaging and transportation are important in postharvest loss prevention measures for fruits and vegetables. In this regard, NSPRI developed plastic crates for packing and transportation of fruits and vegetables. And to ensure availability of fruits and vegetables all year round, NSPRI devised drying technologies to prolong the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. Post-harvest losses in fruits and vegetables in Nigeria is about 50 percent annually. This is a worrisome situation because fruits and vegetables that are meant to complement other food items that we consume for a healthy life are wasting away. Unfortunately, preserving them fresh requires a lot of investment. Again, because electricity supply could be a challenge, using refrigeration may be difficult. One of the innovations that NSPRI has developed is the Evaporative Cooling systems (ECS), which can extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables for about two weeks. One salient point about this technology is that it is very effective in the northern parts of the country where a lot of vegetables are produced and the weather is dry especially during harmattan. Another option of preserving the fruit and vegetables is by drying. The dried products are used for making juice or even eaten as snacks. The dried fruits contain same nutrients as the fresh ones. Vegetables can also be dried using any of our solar drying technologies.
We have a few clients who are selling dried fruits and vegetables locally and internationally. To ease the difficulties of transporting fruits, NSPRI developed the stackable ventilated crates. Using these crates to transport fruits and vegetables minimises damage and losses. Effective cold chain technologies mostly depend on stable power supply. We just developed what we call the “self-chill solar cold room” for storage of fresh fruits and vegetables. This self-chill cold room is powered by solar energy, thus making it an attractive alternative to conventional cold chain facilities. A very interesting area in which we are currently working and making enormous progress is in developing affordable solar-powered refrigerated systems to help our people extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. We want these solar refrigerated systems to be very effective and at the same time to be very affordable, because even though clean energy is sustainable and has lots of advantages, it comes at a cost.
Some analysts have said problems such as inadequate storage facilities for harvests exist because the Nigerian agricultural sector is not evolving as fast as it ought to; do you agree with this?
To some extent, I would agree that there are disparities in terms of the number of persons involved in production compared with storage. However, it may be noted that the post-harvest link of the agricultural value chain requires specialized skills, which are not yet widespread in our country. In the developed world, there are many people with special skills, and they have specialised transportation systems to move agricultural produce from the farm to the industry or markets. In other words, we do not only need people who are specially trained, we also need a more specialised agricultural ecosystem that makes provision for different operational aspects such as specialised vehicles for conveying agricultural commodities to reduce post-harvest losses. But it’s a developmental process. We will get there someday. Also, reviewing government policy on food transportation will definitely salvage post-harvest losses in Nigeria
So, are there any ways by which NSPRI is helping to promote more agricultural specialisation in the country?
NSPRI works on improving processing protocols of agricultural commodities, developing innovations and technologies that are pointers to hygienic products and offers advisory services to value chain actors. NSPRI engages in public enlightenment campaigns and advocacy to ensure specialisation along the value addition chain among other activities that ensure post-harvest management. In our institute, what we do is interdisciplinary research. By this, all the disciplines that are required to provide appropriate solutions to post-harvest problems work together to develop our innovations. Another thing we have done is to champion the establishment of the Federal College of Agricultural Produce Technology (FCAPT), where practitioners and students are trained on postharvest management of crops. The college awards OND and HND. In addition to the certificate programmes, our institute also organises series of training workshops for stakeholders.
Is there promise in having a set of agriculture workers whose key focus is storage? Do you think that this might be a feasible business for entrepreneurs to go into?
Yes, we need to create more awareness of how lucrative storage is for food security. The feasibility and viability of agri-preneurship is vast and the opportunities along the value addition chain are numerous. Actors along the value chain enjoy the privilege of specialisation and diversification; they can decide to specialise on certain aspects of the value addition chain. Some of such opportunities are bulking of durable commodities, drying of fish and tomato processing, just to mention a few.
Would you say that the innovations and interventions that you churn out are being commercialised at the rate you expect and is the private sector forthcoming with the requisite support as readily as you expect?
The rate of commercialisation of our technologies was initially slow but things are taking a new turn. We have not enjoyed much of private support in the past, but we are now working with a few companies. We have embarked on rigorous enlightenment through the media, and we hope it will yield dividend soon.
We understand that NSPRI has several patents as well. If you are producing equipment for the common man and you are not averse to people copying your innovations, why then do you need to patent these innovations?
Yes, we do have several patents. We have patents for the Iced-fish box which is used for storing freshly harvested fish. Our fish-smoking kilns, which can run on charcoal, gas or electricity and dry fish uniformly, help to produce export-quality smoked fish. We also have patents on our Inert Atmosphere silos, which are used for storing large quantities of grains over long periods. We have a patent on NISPRIDUST as well. NSPRIDUST is a non-chemical pesticide or what you would call a bio-pesticide. Bio-pesticides are generally much safer than chemical pesticides.
NISPRIDUST contains an active ingredient known as diatomaceous earth. It is currently in the final stages of registration with NAFDAC and will be introduced to the market once that process is completed.
We are also working to secure more patents. The place of intellectual property rights is to allow the institute to get maximum benefits for the intellectual efforts of our scientists who are working tirelessly to come up with the innovations.
Do you encourage farmers to copy the design and mode of operation of your innovations?
Yes. We encourage this a lot. Our goal is to see our interventions improve the livelihoods and generally enhance the quality of life of our people. All the innovations are for the ultimate benefit of the people.
How are you able to get the farmers to replicate your designs accurately? Is there any monitoring of these designs and their operations?
What we do is to train artisans in various localities to accurately replicate our designs. For instance, we have trained quite a lot of fabricators on fabrication of smoking kilns, and many of our beneficiaries are making a living fabricating the smoking Kilns. The same applies to our solar dryers and others.
How would you rate the uptake of NSPRI’s innovations across the country? Would you say that uptake is as good as you expect? If not, what do you think needs to be done to enhance uptake?
The uptake of NSPRI’s technologies can best be described as a bittersweet scenario.
Our improved smoking kiln has been widely adopted across the country. We have constructed over 50 units for individual fish farmers or processors. About 200 units were bought by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), in 2005, while hundreds of units have been bought under the constituency projects and special intervention projects. However, the same cannot be said of some of our other technologies. Our solar dryers are now in different parts of the country. Our 500-ton capacity inert atmosphere silo is in Landmark University Omu-Aran, Kwara State where they use it to store grains to feed their poultry and livestock. But we continue to engage commodity associations and other pressure groups to invest in these technologies to empower their members. The more people understand the value and cost savings, which these technologies translate to, the more they are inclined to adopt them.
How would you rate the support you get from local communities?
The support from local communities has improved, over the years, but we still yearn for more of their participation. We foresee a time when farmers clearly understand that agricultural development is a collective effort to the extent that they are willing to contribute in tangible terms towards the delivery of innovative technologies.
Do you collaborate with universities; there is a view that often Nigerian scientists work in silos and as such are often not aware of collaboration opportunities with other scientists?
NSPRI encourages and welcomes collaborations; we are working with the Agricultural Developmental Programme, National Agricultural Research Institutes and universities to project the importance of postharvest management. Currently, we are partnering with Benue State university’s Centre for Food and Technology Research (BSU-CEFTER), which is World Bank African Centre of Excellence in post-harvest food loss reduction. The collaboration is yielding positive results on multiple fronts. We have provided postharvest technologies for teaching, learning and extension activities for CEFTER. Some of our senior researchers are teaching special courses on postharvest food loss reduction while several of our staff have post graduate training in various fields.
How much support do you receive from international agencies?
We are enjoying the support of international agencies on specific areas of research in my institute. In the past seven years, we initiated collaborations with, USAID, ICRISAT, VESTERGAARD and Oklahoma State University (OSU) to mention a few.