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Reducing Post-Harvest Losses in Nigeria's Aquaculture Sector Contributes to Sustainable Development

Global Food for Thought by Julius A. Nukpezah , Joseph T. Steensma , Nhuong Tran , and Kelvin M. Shikuku
Namnso Ukpanah
An aerial view of Lagos, Nigeria at sunset

This blog post from our "Field Notes" series explains that although Nigeria is a major global economic hub, many obstacles—like food insecurity, overfishing, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and economic inequality—stand in its way of success.


Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and its largest economy. The country’s population currently stands at more than 200 million with a GDP of more than $400 billion. With an annual growth rate of 2.6 percent, Nigeria adds more than 5 million people to its population every year. Thus, global leaders project Nigeria to be a major global economic hub and a preferred destination for global market watchers. 

However, Nigeria has many headwinds that could derail its progress. Food insecurity, overfishing, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and economic inequality are urgent challenges that need to be addressed if Nigeria is going to thrive in the coming decade. With 95 percent of its forests razed for agricultural land and a growing demand for animal source foods, it is abundantly clear that sustainable food production needs to be the cornerstone of development for Nigeria. If we are to be successful as a global team seeking to feed the future, we must be proactive and respond to the needs that Nigeria presents. 

Under the US government’s Feed the Future initiative and with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Fish at Mississippi State University and its global partners are seeking to alleviate poverty and improve nutrition in vulnerable populations through reliable and inclusive provision of fish, a nutrient-rich animal source food in Nigeria and the developing world. The team leading the effort in Nigeria believes fish production can be done sustainably while providing economic opportunities for thousands of Nigerian families. 

Although Nigeria is a fish-eating country and depends on fish products for its protein source, its consumption patterns lag global averages. While the global per capita consumption of fish is about 21 kg per annum, Nigeria's per capita fish consumption is estimated at about 12 kg. Although aquaculture has recorded the fastest growth rate (25–33 percent since 2010) in Nigeria’s agricultural sector and contributes 4.5 percent of the country’s GDP (and hence to economic development), 45 percent of fish consumed in Nigeria was imported in 2015. 

The low production and consumption of fish in Nigeria is because of rudimentary production systems in the country, more competitive imported fish products, and high poverty rates that limit purchasing power of consumers. The situation is further complicated by high “post-harvest losses” in Nigerian fish food production and consumption systems. Post-harvest loss is a reduction in the value (e.g., mass, monetary value, or nutritive value) of fish after they are harvested. Of all the losses to suffer in an agricultural system, post-harvest losses are the worst. 

While increasing fish production and productivity in the long term are practical strategies for increasing fish consumption that address malnutrition in Nigeria, reducing post-harvest losses of fish from farm gate to consumption is an economic and a rational strategy of increasing value of aquaculture businesses that lead to sustainable economic development. Efforts at increasing production outcomes will also create jobs and reduce waste through post-harvest loss reduction. 

What post-harvest loss is all about

Losses of agricultural produce, and fish for that matter, may occur before, during, or after harvesting. However, post-harvest losses focus on the latter and are of serious concern to agribusinesses as well as agricultural policy makers. This is because the losses occur after investments in the production process. Consequently, there is higher economic loss to ready harvested products for the market. The higher production costs have implications for greater sustainable development. As captured fish travel along the value chain from the farm gate, through wholesalers, transporters, processors, and retailers to household and institutional consumers, there may be losses due to damage and noncompliance with standards that make fish unwholesome and needing to be discarded. 

Losses may also be the result of reduction in quality and safety. For example, in the absence of refrigeration systems and quality packaging, fish deteriorates while the farmer waits to sell because of poor storage technology. Also, the longer it takes for fish to reach the consuming market because of poor transportation infrastructure, the higher the deterioration and loss in value. The quality may preclude the attraction of premium price with health and safety implications. The economic loss is a cost to the enterprise, which is often transferred to the consumer. 

The health burden of foodborne illnesses is a major concern in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization, foodborne illnesses caused 420,000 deaths and 33 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) worldwide in 2010 alone, with Africa suffering the most. The cost of foodborne illnesses in Nigeria is estimated at US$3.6 billion annually. If we can reduce post-harvest losses caused by loss of quality due to poor fish handling along the value chain, we can improve not only consumption of healthy fish foods but reduce the cost of health care in Africa’s most populous country. 

Keeping with the theme of sustainability, it is important to note that a pillar of sustainable development is that food production systems should also add to the health of a society. Fish (or any food, for that matter) is not ‘sustainable’ if those who consume it are at risk for disease, irrespective of the ecological or economic benefits. 

Certification: Strategy to reduce post-harvest loss and enhance food safety

Tran and his colleagues observed in a 2013 article in World Development that concerns among consumers and regulators over the safety and environmental sustainability of seafood in developed nations has led to enforcement of stringent requirements in the global North, including voluntary standards overseen by private third-party certification bodies. While such standards may constitute barriers to participation in export markets by small-scale aquaculture producers, they have catalyzed upgrades to production and post-harvest handling practices of value chain actors in developing countries such as Nigeria. 

The Nigerian Federal Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture commenced the process of certification and standardization of fisheries and aquaculture products in 2009. As part of this process, operational guidelines and criteria for certification of aquaculture products in the country were developed. The purpose is to standardize operation of fish farms in order to minimize potential hazards to human health thereby increasing consumers’ benefits, confidence, and traceability in the process of aquaculture production, processing, and marketing by applying eco-labeling standards for African aquaculture developed by African Organization for Standardization (ARSO). 

Descriptive evidence from key informant interviews and household surveys with producers in eight Nigerian states revealed willingness of aquaculture farmers to participate in aquaculture certification if established. More than 70 percent of the producers interviewed indicated they would be interested to participate in a certification scheme if established. The most important perceived benefits of aquaculture certification, from a producer’s perspective, include higher price and higher demand for fish. An experiment with consumers in Nigeria’s fish markets in Lagos state showed positive and significant premiums for certified catfish. Consumers were willing to pay between 12.5 - 29 percent more for certified fish than non-certified fish. However, the major perceived barriers to participation in certification include high costs, lack of trust in the certifying agents, and the difficulty to satisfy the requirements. 

Nigeria’s rudimentary agricultural system contributes to post-harvest losses

Because agriculture remains small-scaled or subsistent in many parts of Nigeria, rudimentary technology continues to be used in production, which impacts the quality and quantity of the produce from farm gates. Similarly, service providers such as those for inputs and financial intermediation have not been developed to adequately provide support for the sector. 

Moreover, macro level factors include the political factors that create the enabling environment for aquaculture to thrive. In recent times, there is increasing government attention to the sector, but more attention is desired in a country whose economy is driven mainly by oil refineries. 

Next Steps

In order to address post-harvest losses, it is imperative that we understand the cultural and political drivers that make it difficult for actors within the value-chain to adopt technologies that are known to preserve value of fish, post-harvest. There is also the need for investments in different forms of capital (social, political, financial, human, and infrastructural) that can address the systemic challenges that cause post-harvest loss. Such investments, even though they would be focused on a narrow band of the value chain, could have a consequential impact on the entire sector.  

In conclusion, while focusing on post-harvest losses is not a panacea for all that troubles the Nigerian fisheries/aquaculture sector, it does represent a ‘high-impact/low-cost’ opportunity to improve the economic viability of the sector, while reducing the environmental impacts and improving public health. To paraphrase a well-known proverb, “teach a person to fish, they eat for a lifetime…teach a person to preserve the excess fish, retain the value of said fish, and deliver those fish safely to the market at a fair price, their countrymen eat for a lifetime as well.”  

Field Notes

The Chicago Council is pleased to launch a new blog series, “Breaking Ground,” to explore how food systems innovation and agricultural research and development can empower farmers and feed the world. A special subsection of this series, “Field Notes,” features voices from Feed the Future Innovation Labs and CGIAR centers. 

About the Authors
Julius A. Nukpezah
Assistant Professor, Mississippi State University
Julius A. Nukpezah, Assistant Professor, Mississippi State University
Joseph T. Steensma
Professor, Washington University
Nhuong Tran
Research Lead, WorldFish
Kelvin M. Shikuku
Researcher, WorldFish