This post is the first in a series sharing findings from a research project Sam Kornstein and Paul Artiuch are working on throughout the month of January. Paul Artiuch and Samuel Kornstein are graduate students at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Throughout the month of January they are in India researching market-oriented approaches to reducing agricultural food waste.
By Samuel Kornstein and Paul Artiuch
Note: This post was originally published on the MIT Public Service Center website and subsequently reproduced on Sam Kornstein’s personal blog somethingsbrewing.com. We are greatful to Sam and Paul for sharing their experience and research project with InPEC. All photographs included in these series are courtesy of Sam Kornstein.
January 9, 2012
Last fall, we each participated in the Development Ventures course in MIT’s Media Lab. The objective of the course was to identify ways to leverage for-profit business models to tackle some of the world’s most pressing international development challenges. As we both had an interest in finding ways to reduce or extract value from waste that occurs in the supply chains of many developing countries, we teamed up to think about how we could make an impact. In the process, we learned something staggering: research shows that 20-40% of the food grown in India ends up spoiling before it ever reaches consumers.
This problem isn’t unique to India. Many developing countries struggle to modernize and upgrade their agricultural supply chains to match the efficiency of those found in more advanced economies. Poor road quality, unreliable and expensive electricity, insufficient storage capacity, and uncoordinated logistics make it difficult for many countries to avoid food losses between farms and markets. However, we found India’s challenges to be particularly interesting for two reasons.
First, with one of the largest agricultural sectors in the world and a population exceeding 1.2 billion, India’s farming yield has a meaningful impact on global food-security. Studies suggest that in 2010 as much as 16 million tons of Indian-grown grain was lost to spoilage, enough to feed an estimated 118 million people for a year. Even a small improvement could save lives and stabilize food prices in a country that battles chronic mal-nourishment and double-digit food inflation.
Second, as a result of demographics and legislation that limits farm sizes, India’s agricultural sector is surprisingly fragmented when compared with other countries. The average farmer works with just a couple of acres. This means that while efficiency improvements could benefit farming communities rather than large agricultural corporations; typical farmers don’t have the scale or capital to make necessary technology and infrastructure investments that could bring about these efficiencies. This type of fragmentation occurs further down the supply chain as well with transportation companies, traders and wholesalers.
These two factors inspired us to learn more about what could be done and to think about how new business models or technologies could help address the significant waste and inefficiency that occurs. After speaking with dozens of researchers, start-up companies, and non-profit organizations, we kept hearing the same thing: there just isn’t enough accurate data about the supply chain breakdowns, incentives, and economics to fully understand the nature of the problem. And it doesn’t make sense to try and solve a problem that isn’t fully understood.
So we’ve come to India with the goal of understanding and characterizing the food waste problem. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be speaking with farming communities, traders, market operators, consultants, shipping companies, storage companies, policy-makers, and researchers. We hope to return to MIT at the end of the month with actionable information that can be leveraged by the broader academic and business communities to develop new technologies, appropriately disseminate existing ones, and craft business models that can address this enormous challenge. Over the coming weeks we’ll periodically report back on what we find and look forward to your comments.