By Justus Wanzala
NAIROBI (ACP-IDN) – Forty percent of the food produced in Africa is lost, largely due to poor product handling, storage and processing practices, with aflatoxins often responsible for much of this loss in the post-harvest phase.
Aflatoxins are poisonous and cancer-causing chemical produced by certain moulds (Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus) which grow in soil, decaying vegetation, hay and grains.
At the 1st All Africa Post-Harvest Congress held in Nairobi from March 28 -31 to tackle the problem of post-harvest food losses in Africa, ‘aflatoxin management, food safety and nutrition’ was one of the issues on the agenda, with experts calling for improved post-harvest handling of food.
Elizabeth Ogutu, strategy and operations senior officer with the African Union’s Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA), noted that aflatoxins impact food safety, health, trade and agriculture, accounting for 30 percent of liver cancer infections in Africa, and are responsible for the loss of around 670 million dollars.
The Nigeria-based International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), which works with international and national partners to enhance food and nutrition, highlighted its efforts with partner governments, including the fight against post-harvest losses.
IITA presented Aflasafe – Africa’s first indigenous biocontrol product to fight aflatoxins. It works by preventing the growth of aspergillus, the fungus that produces aflatoxin, stimulating the growth of large quantities of harmless species of aspergillus instead.
Since October 2016, IITA has been pioneering the Aflasafe Technology Transfer and Commercialisation Project (ATTC), which works with private companies or government entities to ensure Aflasafe products reach millions of farmers.
Njeri Okoni, who is involved with the Aflasafe project at IITA, told IDN that the project is targeting 11 countries – Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal, The Gambia, Zambia, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mozambique, Tanzania, Malawi and Uganda – but that resource constraints had limited the spread of the programme to more countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. “We have limited resources but had to start somewhere. If we obtain access to more resources, we will expand to other countries.”
Okoni said that in Kenya, where Aflasafe is being used on maize, plans are under way to also include groundnuts and sorghum crops, while the Kenya Agricultural Research Organisation (KALRO) is setting up and Aflasafe factory to manufacture it locally.
She noted that Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture has purchased Aflasafe and is making it available to vulnerable farmers in areas with high aflatoxin prevalence.
In partnership with KALRO and other stakeholders, Okoni said the project has seen 120 extension officers in Kenya trained as part of a training of trainer’s initiative, who in turn have trained more than 8,400 farmers and monitored the issuance and application of 82.5 metric tonnes of Aflasafe by these farmers.
She added that in order to make Aflasafe available to all farmers, IITA is working with KALRO to ensure that the organisation’s Aflasafe plant is fully equipped and ready to begin production by June 2017. “Two metric tonnes of Aflasafe have already been produced from a successful test run of the installed equipment,” she said.
Despite the breakthroughs, however, Okoni explained that implementation of the ATTC project in Kenya has faced challenges. For example, the drought that affected Kenya from late 2016 to early this year led to postponing use of Aflasafe until the next sowing season, while lack of adherence by users of the product to instructions on correct use has often affected product efficacy.
Another limitation, she said, has been improper timing of the stage of application of Aflasafe. “We are aware that adhering to such strict timelines by farmers may be difficult. Hence through continuous training and reminders plus monitoring by the extension team, the farmers should be able to get it right, as has been the case in other countries,” she says.
Okoni also explained that because sorghum is a key raw material in Aflasafe production, the cost of sorghum has an effect on the price of Aflasafe. “We are keen to support our local partner KALRO to establish adequate sorghum production measures. This includes working with select growers to ensure adequate supply and a favourable price,” she said.
Referring to the need to raise awareness among farmers and the general public, Stanley Kimereh, programme associate at Food and Agriculture Organisation - Kenya (FAO-Kenya) also said there was a need to train producers and government officers involved in extension services.
Aggressive mobilisation of technology and advocacy is required, said Cordaro, adding that in recent years aflatoxins as a food security challenge has been receiving attention from policy makers but more resources are still required to combat it.
Damian Ihedioha, agro-industry specialist and coordinator of the Postharvest Losses Reduction and Agro-processing Programme of the African Development Bank (ADB) said research findings about aflatoxin on the continent are languishing on shelves.
He noted that ADB has committed some 850 million dollars to support scaling up technologies for Africa’s agricultural transformation, has established the African Agriculture Research Programme and also committed 300 million dollars to facilitate its implementation.
Martha Byanyima, expert on sanitary and phytosanitary affairs at the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) explained that border controls in the region are weak even though aflatoxins are a transboundary issue, while variations in standards for determining food contamination within the COMESA countries are enormous, undermining quality control.
She also called for self regulation by the private sector to ensure food safety and, noting that some countries are faced with poor screening of aflatoxin infection, she said, “we need regional labs and points of care interventions. Clinicians should be able to diagnose levels of aflatoxin infections [because] sometimes aflatoxin infection is confused with hepatitis." [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 April 2017]
Photo: Panellists speaking during the First All Africa Post-Harvest Congress held in Nairobi, Kenya from March 28 to 31, 2017. Photo taken on March 30 by Justus Wanzala.
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