Larry Murdock, Purdue distinguished professor of entomology, rests on a pile of PICS bags during a trip to Africa.Larry Murdock, Purdue distinguished professor of entomology, rests on a pile of PICS bags during a trip to Africa, where local farmers attended a bag-opening ceremony and saw firsthand the value of the crop-saving technology. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

PICS Passes the Test

African Farmers and Consumers Benefit from Triple-Bag Crop Storage

By Tom Campbell - Published November 6, 2015

On a sweltering piece of sun-scorched earth somewhere near the Burkina Faso-Mali border, 10,000 Africans gathered for an agricultural fair. For hours they walked, hitched rides on the backs of flatbed trucks, rode scooters and biked to the tiny village of Lankoue.

They celebrated and illustrated how far Larry Murdock's life mission has come in the nearly 30 years since he first began the research that generated the Purdue Improved Crop Storage technology known as PICS.

Murdock, Purdue University distinguished professor of entomology and pioneer of the technology, recognizes the beauty in the simplicity of PICS.

"Sometimes, the best ideas are the simplest," he says.

Here's how it works: African farmers put their grain in a plastic bag and seal it. The bag goes inside another bag, which is also sealed. The double bags are put in a third bag and tied shut as well.

It's called triple-bagging. Crop-damaging insects locked inside run out of oxygen and water and die.

​In the African village of Burkina Faso-Mali, 10,000 Africans gathered to watch and participate in a celebration of the success of the Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) technology, pioneered by Purdue Entomologist Larry Murdock. This simple, yet revolutionary technology has increased food security and saved thousands of lives in West and Central Africa.

Millions in Extra Cash

The success of the project has been remarkable. To date, more than 5 million PICS bags, at a cost of $2 to $3 each, have been sold and used in West and Central Africa. A survey conducted in Niger indicates most PICS bags are used at least three years, says Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer, a Purdue agricultural economist and one of the early members of the PICS team. He says a conservative estimate of the extra cash flow for African farmers and households attributable to PICS was $33.95 million for the 2012-13 storage year.

In storage, insects can destroy a crop in a short time, even within days. Before PICS, farmers often had to use pesticides and eat or sell their crop soon after harvest to avoid insect infestation. But with PICS bags, pesticides are not needed, and users can wait to sell their grain when prices rise in the weeks and months after harvest.

"In the meantime, they have well-preserved, pesticide-free grain for food for their families or seed for planting the next season," Murdock says.

In addition, supply chains have been established, benefiting not just farmers but countless African businesspeople. The PICS team's idea from the beginning was to create and promote a technology that would sustain itself.

"The technology would be manufactured in Africa, so it would generate jobs, and the benefits would come to many people along the value chain, from the manufacturer through to the farmer," Murdock explains. "Truckers transport the bags and make a profit. Regional businessmen and women distribute the bags to vendors, who sell them to farmers in villages and local markets. At each point, small profits are made."

Technology Is "Life-changing"

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has a mission of supporting projects that help reduce world hunger, has given over $24 million to the PICS program.

"This type of project and technology is very simple, but it is life-changing for farmers in Africa and around the world," says Charlene McKoin, senior program director for the foundation. "It allows farmers to have food security and the ability to store their crop without using pesticides."

Murdock, McKoin and several members of the PICS team observed the impact of triple-bag technology in that remote corner of Burkina Faso in West Africa in May, seven years after the first festival in 2008 at the end of the first year of the PICS project. That event to celebrate women, agriculture and the PICS technology drew about 100 people.

To Burkina Faso visitors such as Murdock, seeing the event grow a hundredfold since then was nothing short of amazing. Dignitaries sat under tent canopies. The early arrivals huddled in the shade provided by the few leafy trees, while everyone else formed a giant ring to listen to speakers and singers and watch dancers. They saw firsthand, in hundreds of demonstration bags, just what PICS bags can do.

By killing the feasting insects, Murdock and the PICS team have increased food security, helped farmers in West and Central Africa increase the value of their crops by hundreds of millions of dollars and, ultimately, saved lives by minimizing the use of harmful pesticides.

The "True Test"

Murdock started to work on what would eventually become the PICS technology after visiting Cameroon in 1986. It was the first of some 60 trips he has made to the African continent. He became aware of the need to extend the storage life of cowpeas, a staple crop in Africa. Murdock saw that no matter how the harvested crop was stored, insects, mainly weevils, destroyed a large part of it.

In 1987, Murdock put together a team of researchers in the U.S. and Africa to provide African farmers choices for how to best attack the storage problems. The team was fueled by a lofty ambition that powers it to this day. Murdock determined the project would be considered a success only if the technologies developed were accepted and used by families in villages throughout Africa.

"That was our true test," he says.

Retailers sell PICS bags in small farm supply stores.During a trip to Burkina Faso in May, members of the PICS team visited with retailers (left) who sell PICS bags in small farm supply stores. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Dieudonné Baributsa left a position at Michigan State University in 2009 to join the PICS program. A research assistant professor at Purdue, Baributsa grew up on a small farm in central Africa, hungering for something like PICS that would help his own family.

"I saw how my mother struggled to store grain to feed our family," he says. "She used different chemicals, but most of the time, they were ineffective. Getting involved in the PICS program was a big opportunity for me to give back to Africa, to contribute to food security among small farmers in several countries in Africa."

Now, Baributsa has set an ambitious goal for the future of PICS.

"We want to make the PICS bags available to every farmer in every village in Africa," he says, referring to farmers such as Burkina Faso's Bouda Marcel.

"I ask that the PICS bags be available throughout Burkina Faso so that all producers can have these bags," Marcel says, "first for storage and also for the health of the producer and for the family, to guarantee seed for consumption and for sale of the cowpea for a good price."

Commanding a Premium

Lowenberg-Deboer says the PICS team early on set out to learn how African consumers reacted to grain storage damage. They bought grain samples in Cameroon and later extended their purchases to about 30 markets throughout West Africa. Every month, they would buy cowpeas and examine the number of holes, the size of the beans, things any consumer could see.

"What we found was that consumers all across Africa wanted a discount from the moment they saw even one hole in one bean," Lowenberg-DeBoer says. "These were poor people. They didn't have much money to spend, and they were very careful about how they spent it. They wanted value for their money, and they didn't want damaged products."

Now farmers have indicated their triple-bagged cowpea crop commands a 10-15 percent premium in some markets because consumers know that the grain hasn't been treated with insecticides.

Farmers in Africa store a variety of crops in the bags, including corn, Bambara ground nuts, rice, peanuts and sesame seeds.The triple-bagging system developed at Purdue originally was intended to eliminate weevils inside bags of stored cowpeas. Farmers in Africa now are storing a variety of crops in the bags (above), including corn, Bambara ground nuts, rice, peanuts and sesame seeds. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Nearly three decades after Murdock began his research, the PICS program is stronger than ever as the 10,000 people testified with their celebration near the village of Lankoue.

"Women stood proudly by their PICS bags and opened them to exhibit perfectly preserved grain after 4-6 months of storage," he says. "The bags are used for all kinds of grain now, not just cowpeas, but maize, peanuts, sesame seeds and many more. PICS bags work for them all."

Related Link

See how the PICS bags helped farmers in Ebola-stricken Sierra Leone.

Silencing the Crop-Destroying Weevils

By Tom Campbell - Published November 6, 2015

Baoua Ibrahim measures the moisture content of cowpeas in a PICS bag.Baoua Ibrahim, a Purdue Improved Crop Storage team collaborator based in Niger, measures the moisture content of cowpeas in a PICS bag. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Baoua Ibrahim spent most of 2008 out of the lab and on the road. A Purdue Improved Crop Storage team collaborator based in Niger, Ibrahim went from village to village in his native country, teaching farmers to use PICS bags to store their cowpeas.

He visited over 200 villages that year.

"I went hut by hut," he said, "to see how the PICS technology was developing and to discuss with individuals to get their feedback."

Farmers filled the PICS bags with their weevil-infested cowpeas and stored the tied-off bags in the sleeping rooms of their small brick and mud huts. Days later, Ibrahim paid a follow-up visit and was met with smiling faces.

"Come see the bags. They worked," a farmer would declare. "They stopped the weevils."

The nighttime sky in the African villages is quiet—not enough to hear a pin drop but enough to hear weevils feeding. When the farmers laid down to go to sleep, they were used to hearing the sound of weevils gnawing on the cowpeas stored inside the old bags they traditionally used. The insect activity also produced a measurable increase in the temperature of the cowpeas.

But there was silence inside the triple-bagged PICS bags. The insects had stopped feeding. Not only that, the bags were cool.

The farmers taught Ibrahim things about the performance of PICS bags he never expected to learn.

"Sometimes you don't need sophisticated scientific equipment to learn what observant people can tell you," Ibrahim says.