(Purdue International Programs in Agriculture photo/
A demonstration of the PICS bag is presented to a women's group in Kenya in March 2014.
By Keith Robinson
Purdue University is receiving a $10 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a program that will put the crop-saving PICS bags into the hands of more farmers in sub-Saharan Africa countries to improve their food security and income.
The award for the five-year PICS3 project moves the Purdue Improved Crop Storage bags from research and applications for only one crop to commercialization involving multiple crops.
"This project further extends a Purdue program that has long addressed a growing need for more abundant and safer food in sub-Sahara Africa as part of our work in helping to reduce poverty and food insecurity globally," said university President Mitch Daniels. "The next step is a crucial and practical one — developing a system so that more farmers in Africa can use these essential crop storage bags for many crops."
The hermetic triple bagging — a chemical-free storage method developed by professor Larry Murdock in Purdue's Department of Entomology — enables farmers to store a variety of major crops for more than one year after harvest. The technology helps improve food availability and increase income of smallholder farmers. When using PICS bags, farmers no longer need chemicals to control grain storage pests.
Farmers without the bags need to sell their crops soon after harvest or use insecticides, most of which have become ineffective or may not be safe because of improper use. Grain storage loss to insects, a major challenge for smallholder farmers, is estimated to be at least 20 percent for major crops such as corn and common beans.
PICS is a simple, proven technology that has helped millions of African farmers dramatically reduce their storage losses, noted Jay Akridge, Glenn W. Sample Dean of Purdue Agriculture.
"In addition to putting this technology to work on more crops, this project will enable us to set up supply chains that will allow production and distribution of the PICS bags long after the grant funds are exhausted," he said.
PICS technology was developed in the late 1980s by Purdue faculty, students and staff and partners in northern Cameroon with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Efforts under the initial PICS program, which began in 2007, focused on using the technology to store cowpea — a legume known in the U.S. as black-eyed pea — in west and central Africa. Later, a second phase - PICS2 - involved research into how the bags could be used to store other crops.
The Gates Foundation also funded the initial PICS and PICS2 projects.
The new project extends the use of the technology to dry grains. The bags have been used effectively in storing crops such as corn, common beans, wheat, peanuts, pigeon pea, mung bean and sorghum.
The PICS3 project will be implemented in Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Ghana in west Africa; Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia in East Africa; and Malawi in southern Africa. Purdue is looking for funds from other donors to extend PICS technology through the rest of Africa and South Asia.
PICS3 will include building awareness among farmers and working with the private sector to make the technology available to smallholder farmers in the seven countries. Service providers including international and local organizations will train farmers in how to use the bag and connect them with vendors who will be involved in developing the distribution systems.
The cost-effective PICS storage method will make farmers more efficient by increasing food supply, eliminating the need for them to use more land to grow the same amount of salable crops, said project director Dieudonné Baributsa (pronounced (djur-de-NAY' behr-ee-BOOTS'-ah). The goal is to increase the use of hermetic storage of grain on farms by 20 percent.
"This is really significant," he said. "What these bags do is take all of what is already produced, preserve it and make it available," he said. "Without the effective storage technology, you can increase production, but you will still have huge losses."
The bags not only help provide income to farmers throughout the year — and at better prices than if they had sold their crops immediately after harvest — but also provide business opportunities for local, private companies in Africa to expand their manufacturing and distribution. They also lead to opportunities for creating additional jobs in manufacturing and retail in rural areas.
"By the end of the project, a sustainable system will be in place where the private sector will be well-equipped to continue developing profitable business in PICS bags," Baributsa said.
Murdock, who led the PICS development team, said the entire PICS project demonstrates how Purdue science can help people lead better lives.
"At the same time, we're making friends abroad and learning about other cultures," he said. "Someday that could come back with high returns here in Indiana and the United States with new markets opening up for U.S. products. Then everyone will benefit."