Grains in storage are destroyed within a few weeks by insect pests if they are left unprotected. Protecting harvested grains against insect pests has always been a priority but also a great challenge to farmers in Africa. The most common protection method used by farmers involves the application of chemicals. However, chemicals are often mishandled or the wrong chemicals are used, which endangers the health of both producers and consumers.
In Nigeria, several cases of food poisoning due to toxic grains resulting from the inappropriate use of chemicals for storage—or commonly called killer beans have been documented. Due to a lack of appropriate storage technologies, many smallholders are forced to sell their cowpea soon after harvest, only to buy it back at a higher price a few months later.
IITA and Purdue University thus undertook a research project called Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) to disseminate a technology that will enable smallholder cowpea farmers to safely store the grains they produce. The airtight, non-chemical PICS bags with “triple bagging” technology consisted of an outer layer of woven polypropylene or nylon bag and two liners of 80-micron, high-density polyethylene bags. It keeps air out, thus, preventing the intrusion and survival of insect pests on the grains stored within. The simple idea behind the PICS technology is “no air, no life.” Insect pests need air (oxygen) to survive; thus, if they are denied this, they will die.
In 2007 (first year of the project, PICS1), IITA, Purdue University, and local partners started a large-scale dissemination of the PICS technology in West Africa. It took off from the initial efforts of the project, which focused only on storing cowpea. Further research by PICS scientists has shown that the technology is also effective in storing other grains, thereby, giving birth to the PICS3 Project.
During the 2014/2015 season, IITA successfully demonstrated the use of PICS bags for storing maize, rice, cowpea, and sorghum in 21 states in Nigeria, covering 1500 villages and 79,817 farmer participants. Similarly, in Ghana, IITA, together with NGOs and extension services, also successfully demonstrated the effective use of PICS bags to store different types of grains to 65,646 farmers in 1000 villages.
The media played a crucial role in publicizing the PICS technology, especially in Nigeria. With the establishment of several vendors of PICS bags in different parts of the country, radio commercials (jingles) were found to be very effective in raising interest among target end-users. The jingles were broadcast in the local languages and in Pidgin English (a type of broken English spoken in the local vernacular). In addition to radio commercials, IITA also organized participatory radio phone-in programs with major radio stations to discuss PICS technology. The IITA PICS team of Nigeria also developed and disseminated videos in the local language about the bags using drama or as a feature in some popular film or comedy skit. The PICS jingles were interspersed with the videos which were shown in town halls, schools, marketplaces, or in the residence of the village head. To complement the video showing, local PICS bag vendors were invited to display and sell PICS bags. Some youth and unemployed graduates are also marketing PICS bags now.
Each time the PICS bags and technology are first introduced to farmers, they are usually met with some uncertainty. A commonly raised question is “Is it possible to store cowpeas without the use of chemicals?” To address this, the IITA PICS team stored grains with farmers in PICS bags and conduct “Open-the-Bag” Ceremony (OBC) in villages where the technology is initially being introduced. OBC is central to PICS’ promotion strategies.
During village demonstrations, volunteer farmers offer to store their grains in PICS bags for six months without applying any chemical. At the end of the six-month period, the same farmer-volunteers publicly open the PICS bags during the OBC to attest to other farmers that the grains stored are safe and free from insect pests.
Farmers are drawing huge economic and health benefits from the use of the PICS bags. It is not uncommon in West Africa to have price increases of more than 50% between harvest and the next planting season for cowpea. Therefore, if farmers can store and keep grain quality, they can capture much of the price increase as profit. For instance, Hauwa Mohammed, a woman small-scale kosai (bean cake) processor in Kwalli, Gombe State, volunteered some of her cowpea for demonstration using PICS bags back in 2010.
Other women laughed at her saying that her cowpea would be chicken feed after the storage period because of the high weevil infestation in the village. They believed that it was impossible to safely store grains in a bag without chemicals. During the OBC six months later, she showed that the quality of the grain was retained using the PICS bag, much to the disbelief of her co-villagers. Hauwa made more money from her business during that year’s planting season because she bought cowpea and stored them in PICS bags after harvest when there was a glut in production and prices were very low. She used the stored cowpea for her bean cake business throughout the year.
To date, about 5 million PICS bags have been produced and sold in Nigeria and Ghana alone. PICS bags are also being sold in Niger, Mali, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, and Togo. The PICS bag technology is also now moving to East and Southern Africa under the current PICS3 project.