KAMPALA – Eco-friendly packaging developed by Ugandan academics and businesses with a university from the UK could boost the incomes of female farmers in the country and create much-needed new job opportunities.
The packaging made from maize stover – the stalks left after harvesting – could reduce high levels of waste of up to 65 per cent from fruit and vegetables like tomatoes and help the country’s subsistence farmers, the vast majority of them women.
That’s according Dr. Stephen Lwasa, who leads a team from Makerere University in Kampala who have been working with Ugandan commercial partners Oribags Ltd and Musabody Ltd and scientists from Bangor University’s BioComposites Centre in North Wales to use waste from maize, one of the country’s most important cash crops, for the project.
Dr Stephen Lwasa, lead academic on the project from Makerere University, said: “The partnership that we have with Bangor University, and other partners, to use maize waste to produce packaging materials is an exciting opportunity for our farmers and others.
“Post-harvest losses will be reduced, product quality will be maintained and opportunities to market these packaging materials and products in high end markets, will increase streams of incomes for those involved.
“The benefits will include raising awareness that maize stover and other crop residues that are largely considered by many as waste, are raw materials for manufacturing sustainable, bio-based packaging usable by farmers, traders and consumers.
Dr Adam Charlton is part of the team from Bangor University who are working with Sussex-based Nafici Environmental Research Ltd, experts in converting agricultural wastes into paper pulp, and partners in Uganda including Makerere University.
He said: “Farmers in Uganda commonly transport their harvest to market using a range of packaging including sacks and plastic containers, which does result in produce spoilage of up to 65 per cent for some products, including tomatoes.
“Maize is one of the country’s most important cash crops and 80 per cent of the plant is left over after harvest and is mainly left in the fields, which can cause termite infestation resulting in subsequent crop damage .
“This residual stover is used for animal bedding and fuel but we’ve been working on using it to make biodegradable packaging which could provide the farmers with another source of income through local manufacture.
“We believe this and packaging made from other crop residues could be used as an alternative to conventional plastic packaging.”
Dr Charlton spent two weeks in Uganda in 2019 and was due to visit the country again last year but the Covid-19 pandemic caused that trip to be cancelled and the project to be extended by six months.
He now hopes to return to the country this year and in the meantime has been maintaining regular contact with the locally based partners in the project.
Dr Lwasa added: “The packaging is environmentally friendly and bio-degradable and the farmers, most of whom are women, will earn an extra income from the sale of stover to the packaging manufacturers which will motivate farming communities to increase maize production.
“Packaging the fresh produce using these bio-based products will reduce post-harvest losses which are estimated at between 20 and 65 per cent.
“The packaging factory would also provide much-needed employment, including for young people and women at a time when Uganda is experiencing a youth bulge with over half either underemployed or unemployed.
“Distribution of the packaging materials will also spur many business activities including collection, loading and offloading, transportation, eco-pulping and processing of the stover into final products that will create more job opportunities.
“The higher incomes created through increased economic activity will lead to increased demand for clean and fresh household consumption goods and generation of revenue for Government.”
Uganda has two million farmers, 1.6 million of them women, and Dr Charlton said: “Our colleagues at Makerere University have been visiting them and there is huge interest in the project.
“We have made examples of the packaging here and they’re very excited about it and one of the companies we’re working with in Uganda which makes bags and other packaging materials will be closely involved in commercialising these products.
“The aim is to set up a commercial factory out there to produce the packaging from maize stover which will be supplied by the farmers.”
The stover will be pulped and moulded into packaging for eggs, tomatoes, and other fruit and vegetables under the brand name Stoverpack™.
Dr Charlton and his team are based at Bangor University’s BioComposites Centre which was set up in 1989 to research and develop eco-friendly and bio-based alternatives to synthetic materials in manufacturing, industry and agriculture.
He added: “In Uganda and closer to home we are looking at ways of using the waste from food production to make a range of useful products in ways that are commercially viable.
“There is a real focus now on adding value to agricultural and food processing residues, from material thrown away by consumers in the home to unused residue in fields and on farms.”
A large percentage of leftovers, between a third and a quarter, are not utilised and the BioComposites team are looking at a range of ways of making more use of the waste generated by the food industry but reducing the amount of chemicals and energy used in the production processes.