Could a Simple New Farm Sack Help Millions of African Farmers? Bill Gates Thinks So

Photography by Dieudonné Baributsa

Three simple sacks, placed one inside the other, could revolutionize how African farmers store their crops after harvest. And with $10 million more in funding, the project is set to expand across the continent and see just how much a simple bag can change the face of African agriculture.

Since 2007, through the Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) project, Purdue University and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have been working to revolutionize how farmers in Western and Central Africa store their crops after harvest.

With nearly $23 million invested already, the foundation recently announced another $10 million in funding to allow the technology to be expanded into Eastern and Southern Africa.

Without proper storage farmers can lose half their harvest to pests because they have no way of keeping the bugs from consuming their surplus — aside from harsh chemicals.

Without proper storage farmers can lose half their harvest to pests because they have no way of keeping the bugs from consuming their surplus — aside from harsh chemicals.

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“In the short term pests aren’t really an issue, but as they reproduce their numbers grow exponentially until all the food is gone,” says Larry Murdock, professor of entomology at Purdue and lead developer of the PICS project. “If you arrest reproduction, the bugs will die off and the food will be safe.”

The chemical-free storage method relies on a specially designed, multi-layered, hermetic bag that can keep food fresh and free from pests for more than a year after harvest. Murdock says on average, farmers use the bags three to five times before they wear out, and even after that span he says he has seen the used bags re-purposed in inventive ways.

“There are two very important aspects of the project aside from being successful storage containers: one, that the bags are manufactured in Africa, creating various spin-off jobs; and two, that costs are kept low. We’ve been successful at both so far.”

Burkinabe farmers transport a load of PICS bags to market.1
Burkinabe farmers transport a load of PICS bags to market.
Project Directer Dieudonné Baributsa examines PICS bags for sale at a market in Niger.2
Project Directer Dieudonné Baributsa examines PICS bags for sale at a market in Niger.
Originally the bags were designed for storing cowpea.3
Originally the bags were designed for storing cowpea.
1
Burkinabe farmers transport a load of PICS bags to market.
2
Project Directer Dieudonné Baributsa examines PICS bags for sale at a market in Niger.
3
Originally the bags were designed for storing cowpea.

At $3 a pop, the bags give farmers the ability to store their crops, allowing them to sell it over the course of the year. As prices rise, after harvest-period lows, farmers can then sell their goods at a higher price.

While the first PICS project focused on storing cowpeas – better known in the U.S. as black-eyed peas – in Central and West Africa, the new grant will allow the technology to be expanded for use with dry grains such as pigeon pea, peanuts, maize and sorghum.

Murdock says, to date, they’ve sold nearly 3.5 million bags in West and Central Africa. Once the bags become available for popular crops like maize, Murdock expects the market to rapidly expand.

All thanks to a simple farm sack.

Could a Simple New Farm Sack Help Millions of African Farmers? Bill Gates Thinks So