Reducing Farms’ Wasted Resources with Postharvest Education Foundation’s Lisa Kitinoja

August 6, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so excited to have with us today Lisa Kitinoja. She’s the founder of the Postharvest Education Foundation. If you want to follow along while we chat with Lisa today, it’s www.postharvest.org. Welcome to Green is Good, Lisa. LISA KITINOJA: Thank you very much. I’m happy to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Lisa, you have a fascinating story that started back in my hometown of New York City and led to this great organization that you’ve created, the Postharvest Education Foundation. Can you share with our listeners your journey and your story, how you even got to this position on this planet and in your life? LISA KITINOJA: Sure, I will. I’m getting to practice this a bit now that I’m running a foundation. I have to speak at various activities and give some background. It’s a story that started when I was a child in Staten Island and I was about 10 years old and there was this big announcement in the newspaper that said that there was gonna be a 25-mile walkathon to end hunger so I joined up and as a 10-year-old, I couldn’t quite make 25 miles, but I did my very best to raise money to end hunger. Of course, that was just the beginning and I learned more and more about it and how widespread it was in the world and what a big problem it was so as a kid and a teenager, I was really interested in learning about food preservation and food storage and different ways of reducing food losses so when I went to college, that was what I studied. I studied agriculture, horticulture, vegetable crops, and I was able to put together what I learned from my family and what I learned from school in my education at UC – Davis and then I went on to Ohio State and got my doctorate and what I wound up doing was specializing in two things. One was how to teach informal groups like farmers, not university or high school education, but field based education, practical things, and then second, I really wanted to learn about international agriculture and reducing food losses, so I put those two together and became a consultant, worked in over 20 countries all over the world with all kinds of activities and all kinds of different organizations and that’s what brought me to kind of the end of my career, semi-retirement in 2011, and a few of my friends and colleagues got together and launched this foundation. We decided that we were gonna teach young people around the world how to do what we learned how to do and that’s to reduce losses by identifying all kinds of post harvest problems, giving them skills and resources in order to help farmers in their own communities. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, it’s not really a retirement for you. It’s really a new beginning, right? LISA KITINOJA: It sure is. I’m planning on working more now than before. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s such a fascinating story, Lisa, because you spent your life around the world in developing countries working in small farming communities working and learning and teaching. Did you found the Postharvest Education Program because you found that there’s a lack of opportunity of others teaching what you needed to teach and teaching what you’ve learned out in the field in all these other countries around the world? Is there not a lot of what you’re doing now in other parts of the world, teaching this kind of thing? LISA KITINOJA: Yeah, exactly. What I’ve found in almost 30 years of doing consulting work and working with all kinds of universities and the big donor agencies is that they have projects that are ostensibly designed to help farmers in countries but they send their experts in and out so fast that there’s really never any local capacity building or local expertise being developed and so I got to work on a lot of interesting projects and I got to solve problems and fly here and there and do all kinds of fun things but I wasn’t able really to stay long enough or to follow up anything that I had been teaching people and so what I noticed and what my colleagues noticed was that it’s just very frustrating for the people in these countries. They hear about these great new things they can do. They’re told that it’s possible but then the expert comes and goes so fast that they never get to actually do it so that was why we set up this foundation. It’s specifically designed to target these young people who want to become the experts in this field and work in their own countries and instead of having to fly an expert in from the U.S. or Europe to Africa or Asia, spend a huge amount of money, we can train 10 people for that amount of money and have them work in their own home countries and be the local experts. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so great. That makes so much sense so talk a little bit about your foundation and for our listeners, again, who want to learn more about what Lisa is doing at the Postharvest Foundation, please go to www.postharvest.org. I’m on the site now. It’s a beautiful site. Talk a little bit what your attention is focused on there with regards to fruits, vegetables, and other types of agricultural issues. LISA KITINOJA: Basically, we have one big program that we work on every year. We recruit in November of each year a new batch of people that we call our Global E-Learners and we developed a program that doesn’t require a lot of money or a lot of travel but it does take a lot of time so we have young people every year who are interested in learning about reducing food losses. Almost all of them are working with fruits and vegetable crops because this, we found, was the most neglected of the crops. They are all working in developing countries so it’s open to anyone around the world. They’re all working with small farmers and basically, what we found was there’s plenty of private organizations that work with big farmers or governments even, projects that work with big farmers, so we are gonna work with the small ones and then we also target young people because they need jobs. They need skills to get into the workplace. We target women because they often are the ones who are handling the food for their families. They sometimes grow it, often work on processing it to things that can be stored longer and in places like West Africa, they’re even the marketing people so the women are really important and then also we look at organic food a lot of times because in these poor resource or low resource places, people are naturally producing organic foods only because they can’t afford the pesticides and fertilizers and so it’s easy for us to jump in and show them how they can maintain an organic production and handling system, thereby gaining more money for what they’re selling if they can get into that niche market and in the meantime, they can keep their foods really safe to eat locally so we target people who want to work with those groups and what we’ve found is there’s hundreds of them, thousands of them out there. Every year, we get a batch of applications and we take the top 20 or 30 and we work with them for a whole year so they work with us online. We do assignments with them. They write reports. They get feedback. We have chat sessions and LinkedIn group sessions. They get mentoring and if they complete that program, they get a tool kit that has all kinds of tools that they can use to measure quality and to help reduce food losses. Every year, the foundation holds a clothing workshop for this group of young people that finish their program and so last year, we went to Tanzania and we had a group of about 12 come from different countries around the world. This year, we’re hoping to have a workshop in West Africa, and two years ago we went to India, so we’re trying to get them not only to work with us in this clothing workshop, meet the experts we have from the U.S. and other countries that we have on the board of the foundation, but we want them to meet each other because then, they form this lifelong network where they help each other with things or they answer each other’s questions. They do projects together. The last few years, there’s been quite a bit of funding opportunities coming around for Postharvest projects and so they write project proposals together. They get funding to do training in their own countries and then the foundation just stays in the background but provides support. We’ll send them resources. We’ll send them information if they need it. We’ll help them design a project or help them find resource people. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there that just joined us, we’re so honored to have with us today Lisa Kitinoja. She’s the founder of the Postharvest Education Foundation. You can check out all the important work she is doing with her colleagues at www.postharvest.org. Lisa, now wait a second. You laid out a fascinating business model for your foundation so what you’re saying is everything that you’ve learned from your field around the world the last 30 years, you’re able to have started this foundation but really leverage the technological revolution to influence so many more people now with all of your knowledge using online teaching and online tools to spread the knowledge that you’ve learned over all these years. LISA KITINOJA: Yes, right, and what I’m amazed by myself is the low cost of this. Just for example, I’ve worked on projects where we’re given some funding to do training of trainers or capacity building. It will often cost maybe five, six, seven thousand per person to do a weeklong workshop and they barely get a glimpse of the field and how to become a professional or an expert. I’ve also seen organizations that offer workshops and short courses and they attract people from around the world. They’ll charge $5- to $10,000 for one week of education and so it’s completely out of the reach of these young people in poor nations so what we wanted to do was offer a program that was really reasonably priced so that everyone who wanted to participate could participate. We’ve kept the fees very low. In fact, I don’t want to advertise this too loudly but if someone tells me they can’t afford the fees, we just sort of waive them or find them a sponsor or something. We don’t turn them down because they can’t afford the fee. At the end of the program, we give them a tool kit that’s worth more than what they paid as their fees and so it turns out to be something that’s very low cost and very easy to access for people. We haven’t found that to be a barrier to do this educational activity. The main thing for me is that I want to make sure that by the time I retire completely that there are young people in all these different countries who can pick up the work that I had been doing and I love the idea- and this happens to me now after four or five years of providing education- when the phone rings and someone from a country in Africa asks me, ‘Can you come and help us on such and such a day for such and such a time?’ and I look at my calendar and I say, ‘No, I’m sorry. I can’t do that. I’m busy.’ I can follow it up by saying, ‘but there’s a local person that we have trained and has gone through this year of foundation training in postharvest specialist. They have tools, they have knowledge, they have skills. Please call them and they can help you’ and so that happens to me regularly now and it always puts a big smile on my face. JOHN SHEGERIAN: With your program at the Postharvest Foundation, you’ve in many ways democratized the learning process of the skills that you want and need these young people to learn by putting it online. It’s fascinating. Lisa, can you share a little bit about the whole importance and the foundational issue of your program? Why is it important for all these women farmers and young farmers and small farmers to learn to produce all this harvest, losses, and food waste, just so our listeners understand the importance why this is so critical to make a better and a more sustainable world for all of us to live in? LISA KITINOJA: Okay, well, thank you for that question because most of my education and my career where I was working on postharvest food losses, I often had to start out by explaining just what that was. What is postharvest handling and why am I working on food losses? More recently, some of the bigger organizations of the world have started to look at this and what they’ve documented is that globally, food losses are about 40 to 50%, so about half of the food that we grow is wasted. It just doesn’t get from the farm to the people who need to eat it. In countries where I’ve worked, it’s even higher than that. There are places where they don’t have electricity. They don’t have any way to cool something or put it in a refrigerator so they can have losses of 80% or even all of it can be lost if it’s attacked by pests or if it decays so what we have been doing is we are letting these young people document the losses in their own country first so that they’re sure that they know that this is a really big problem and then once they understand the scope of these losses and how to measure them, they know how to reduce them so it’s really becoming a great career opportunity for all of them. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, for people that want to help your great mission and help the Postharvest Education Foundation train more young people around the world to be postharvest specialists, what’s the best way to help you and your mission, Lisa? LISA KITINOJA: Well, you’ve given the website address and that’s exactly the way to do it. We have a donation page and we’re trying this year to raise about $20,000 to bring our current batch of e-learners. We have 32 enrolled this year. We want to bring them to a closing workshop in West Africa and so that’s our goal for the year. Even bringing one is a big success story and the more we can bring, the better. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is great and I hope that can happen and for our listeners out there that want to contribute to Lisa’s great mission at the Postharvest Foundation, please go to www.postharvest.org. Thank you, Lisa, for being a visionary sustainable farming evangelist and ambassador. You are truly living proof that green is good.