Rail transportation of tomatoes: Insights from a practitioner
The recent movement of tomatoes by rail in Nigeria showed many people that as a nation, we can make progress and take giant steps in the private sector despite the challenges we face. It also showed the resolve of the private sector to solve problems it faces which will in turn affect the overall state of a value chain as critical as that of tomatoes. The value chain is plagued with inefficiencies, two of which the rail movement attempted to solve; packaging and logistics. Solving these will help to greatly reduce the high post-harvest loss experienced in the tomato supply chain.
Post-harvest loss is a major problem faced by smallholder farmers in Nigeria. It affects their incomes and their ability to get out of poverty. Along the tomato supply chain, about 45% of harvested produce are lost before getting to the end consumer. A lack of access to the necessary knowledge, inputs and infrastructure is responsible for this. To reduce post-harvest losses, the farmers should embrace improved handling and packaging practices, known as Good Handling Practices (GHP), for their produce. GHP covers the harvesting methods, handling techniques as well as packaging, storage and logistics methods. This access ought to be facilitated by extension workers assigned to various farm clusters by state ministries of agriculture, however challenges exist therein. In Nigeria today, we have one extension worker to over 3,000 farmers. The recommended ratio by the FAO is one extension worker to 800–1000 farmers. Nigeria has a serious human capacity gap in this regard.
Besides the human aspect, inputs for packaging such as the returnable plastic crates are not widely available in the market place. The predominant packaging material for tomatoes still remains the raffia basket. The nature of the raffia basket contributes to the high post-harvest losses in the tomato value chain. The raffia basket does not provide aeration to its contents. It is also not designed to protect its contents when stacked. Contents are regularly squashed when stacked in storage or during transit due to the vibrations of the vehicle and the flexible nature of the basket.
Bringing rail transportation into fresh produce logistics resulted from understanding the inefficiencies in the tomato market system and developing sustainable market focused solutions. Road transport is the dominant form of transport for fresh produce. Challenges faced here are those of poorly serviced vehicles, bad roads and multiple taxation as the trucks move through several states before arriving at the final destination. These cause delivery delays and increased tomato wastage. Rail transport eliminates these 3 challenges of road transport.
The recent rail movement of tomatoes took advantage of the Nigerian Railway Corporation schedule of the Kano to Lagos narrow gauge passenger train which leaves Kano on Monday mornings for a 30-hour journey to Lagos, in an ideal situation. The tomatoes were packaged into returnable plastic crates and loaded into a 14-ton unrefrigerated baggage van/cabin. Three of such rail events have taken place, carrying 648, 450 and 630 returnable plastic crates of tomatoes respectively. Various operational challenges on the part of the railway corporation came up in all the trips, leading to extended travel times of 55 hours, 53 hours and 67 hours. The physical conditions of the tomatoes at the receiving end varied with most of the tomatoes arriving in good condition. The primary determinants of safe arrival were proper GHP at the farms and aggregation centres, ventilation and crate arrangement. The crate arrangement should take into account the lateral oscillation experienced on the rail tracks therefore an alternating arrangement pattern was adopted to prevent crates from tipping over.
The adoption and proper execution of GHP at the farms and aggregation centres, to a large extent, determines the quality of the tomatoes at the destination, and also determines the amount of money a farmer can make from his harvest. For instance, at current infrastructure levels, ripe tomatoes should not be transported over long distances i.e. from northern Nigeria to Lagos or Port Harcourt. Such tomatoes should be sent to processing plants which happen to exist in the North. Rather, tomatoes that have just begun the ripening process should be sent down south so they will ripen in transit and give the seller in the south a longer time to sell them before decay sets in basically referring to the short shelf life currently reported. Under these conditions, there will be more good tomatoes to go around and more money made by the value chain actors due to less damage. Until cold chain infrastructure is widely available, farmer education in this regard is highly required.
These rail events have created a platform that needs to be developed further, rail movement of fresh perishables across Nigeria. The Nigerian rail network passes through major fresh perishable production (Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Jigawa, Bauchi etc.) and supply states (Lagos, Rivers, Enugu, Abia, Imo) so the access to market is available. The infrastructure to make use of the assets is lacking. Rail cold reefers are needed to make this work. Cold rooms should also be available to complement the reefers. Ripe tomatoes, for example should be stored and transported at about 7–10°C to stall ripening and extend shelf life for a week. Unripe tomatoes stored at 13–18°C can be stored for 2–3 weeks. The NRC will need to improve its scheduling to make room for cold chain cargo and to give it priority on the tracks due to the perishables on board. Generally, cargo rail services should be scheduled differently and given priority to encourage business via the rail system.
The market is already buzzing and early movers are indicating interest in revolutionizing the fresh produce logistics industry in Nigeria along rail channels. Though a capital-intensive project which requires the government to play its part i.e. the NRC, the opportunities are vast and are begging to be taken. The rail events were piloted with tomatoes. The way is clear for investors to extend this to other fresh fruits and vegetables in the Nigerian agriculture space but he need for cold reefers cannot be overemphasized, otherwise, it will be an investment down the drain with the multiplier effect felt at the market end resulting in high food prices.
Kabir Lawal GEMS4 Project Nigeria
The GEMS4 Project is a DfID-funded project that seeks to improve income and employment opportunities within Nigeria’s wholesale and retail sector, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable.