Partners’ inputs help kick-start the RTB work agenda on postharvest activities.

Peeling plantains for the agroindustry, processing cassava with efficient equipment, accessing markets and offering varieties that consumers like: these are just a few of what can be classified as ‘postharvest activities’. All these aspects are what drew together the 50+ participants to the long-awaited workshop on ‘Strategies for improving livelihoods through RTB postharvest technologies’ that took place last month at CIAT Headquarters in Cali, Colombia. The workshop was the first time the RTB team would meet around a table to discuss these topics and define specific plans.

Expectations were high, as the activities that fall under the RTB Theme 6 of research touch upon many areas of interventions, as shown by the diversity of stakeholders and presentations. No serious exchanges could have taken place without the presence of partners, who gave first-hand accounts of their work in the field and presented their insights and experiences on nutrition, food security issues, gender, consumer and user preferences, environmental aspects, value chain organization, and quality management in small and medium enterprises.

“With 32 professional staff with root and tuber crops and banana expertise, we at NRI – UK’s Natural Resources Institute – are big players on roots and tubers, and we work with farmers and industries on site,” explained Keith Tomlins, before elaborating on his interest in partnering: “Helping poor people is our driving force, and that can only be done with collaborations.” The same credo was put forward by EMBRAPA’s Marilia Nutti, a food engineer who was also the first female director at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, when she led their Food Technology Center. EMBRAPA currently coordinates the biofortification networkBioFort that fights malnutrition in Brazil through the improvement of 8 popular crops, with the release of recommended cultivars with the partnering hand of HarvestPlus. Thierry Tran from CIRAD pointed out a potential ‘quick-win’ for the RTB, a tool for diagnostic of energy use by small and medium enterprises: “RTB should identify and disseminate best practices to reduce energy use,” he explained in his presentation on environmental aspects of RTB crops processing.

After two days of sharing experiences, the workshop was punctuated by a field trip to the beautiful Quindío region in thedepartment of Armenia, where I had the opportunity to talk to more partners. There, after a drive through a breathtaking scenery of lush green valleys, we visited plantain and cassava processing plants, before getting an insight into the dynamism behind the agribusiness in the region as illustrated by the explanations given by Silverio Gonzalez, the president of Colombia’s Fedeplatano – Colombia’s Federation of Plantain Producers – and by the visit to a cassava plantation managed by a young entrepreneur targeting supermarkets in Cali and Bogota.

During the trip I had the opportunity to hear from stakeholders whose dedication had them go back and forth between the academia and the field. “I won’t be at the workshop tomorrow as I have classes to teach,” apologized Martin Moreno Santander, a professor in agricultural engineering at the Universidad del Valle. “My dream is to build pilot equipment to dry cassava starch for trials. I work with students, we’re looking at reducing the use of water, at increasing the plant productivity,” he explained further.

On our way back to Cali, Juan Fernando Aguilar told me about his work at FHIA – the Honduran Foundation for Agricultural Research – and about his immediate interest when the creation of the RTB Research Program was being discussed, back in 2010. A specialist in biofortification, his interest (passion?) focuses on user preferences and the dissemination of new, vitamin-A-rich banana varieties. “We work with IDRC on a project to develop banana hybrids with a high content of Vitamin A. We did some tests six months ago and we selected 4 hybrids out of 100. But we need to do other tests at a much bigger scale.” His end goal was all too clear, as he said “We should first see an improvement in the health of the farmers themselves, with less anemia in children and lactating mothers.”

Taste is an important element when researching user preferences, something Dr. Dominique Dufour, Food Technologist and the workshop organizer, is fully aware of. So he could only give special care to the lunch we would have on the road: we tasted a typical “plato montañero” which had plantain, cassava and potato with meat in a special sauce. Such a hearty meal and inspiring visits were clearly – and cleverly – designed to give us strength to follow on the next two days with the workshop…

These previous exchanges were particularly helpful to get the team focus progressively around topics. Three groups were formed to develop plans for products and tools that would help deliver important outcomes for RTB. Every participant left with some homework to finalize full project proposals by May.

“Having people interact first and have them come slowly to common interests is a very smart approach,” appreciated FONTAGRO’s Executive Director Hugo Li Pun. “This is much better than imposing a rigid agenda on Day 1.”

Read the Workshop Report

By Véronique Durroux-Malpartida