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Double efforts to rid our foods of aflatoxin

By Hillary Nyang’anga | November 22nd 2019

The media has done a good job exposing the dangers of aflatoxin to the Kenyan populace. More alarming is the link to liver cancer and other related health issues that are widespread and without a particular and specific point of remedial intervention able to guarantee safety and good health.

The implication of this is that Kenyans will continue to die of aflatoxin poisoning in one way or another.

This calls for immediate action to develop aflatoxin management strategies to protect future generations, since the current one is already deeply affected.

Several strategies exist for aflatoxin management at different stages of maize and other grains’ value chain. Each of these strategies has associated costs and the choice of a strategy depends on available options.

The Kenyan case, which is a self-inflicted problem, is not unique and long ago, our grand- and great grandparents effectively managed aflatoxin despite their low literacy levels and lack of equipment.

Grain value chain consists of production, harvesting, post-harvest, processing, distribution and finally the products get to the consumer.

It is at the post-harvest stage where the aflatoxin causing fungus infests the grains. Some of the activities that must be done at post-harvest handling include drying, shelling, treatment, transportation and storage.

The fungus that causes aflatoxin thrives in the presence of moisture and therefore, without proper drying or with exposure of already dried grain to water, the fungus will develop.

The responsibility of aflatoxin management is therefore a farmer’s duty since drying must happen at the farm level before and after shelling. Aflatoxin infestation happens mainly because of poor information access by farmers on how to dry the grains and for how long.

Farmers have little knowledge with no equipment to ascertain the moisture levels within the grain, and hence majority of them will release the grains for storage without certainty of the moisture content, hence aflatoxin infestation.

Mechanisms had previously been put in place. In the 1960s through to 1990s, farmer education on the entire agricultural production process, including post-harvest handling, was offered by agricultural extension officers under the Ministry of Agriculture.

Farmers lived with extension agents within their villages and could consult them any time.

But with the structural adjustment programmes and the 2010 Constitution, the agricultural extension services were neglected, if not abandoned.

With the old farmers exiting the scene, post-harvest handling knowledge that they had was lost and a new crop of farmers, who are more profit-oriented and with little knowledge of post-harvest handling, have taken over the agricultural production. The effect of aflatoxin will, therefore, be with us for a long time.

The cost of setting up and treating aflatoxin-related diseases such as liver cancer is huge and the social and financial effect, which is left with the affected families and the Government, is enormous and unquantifiable. On the other hand, the cost of revamping agricultural extension to improve farmer knowledge would be considerably low.

Studies have shown that there is one extension officer to 1,500 farmers (1:1500), which makes it very difficult for the officers to execute their mandates.

Previously, the World Bank advised that developing countries should adopt a demand-driven extension approach.

This has, however, proved to be ineffective in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 70 per cent of the farmers are smallholders and their level of production would not sustainably pay for extension.

But all is not lost as there is hope in the emergence of ICT for extension services where important information such as post-harvest handling can be shared with several farmers simultaneously.

University of Nairobi has since identified this opportunity and developed masters and doctorate degree programmes in agricultural information and communication management at its College of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences in the department of Agricultural Economics.

This programme aims to develop the capacities of students in agriculture, extension, ICT, communication and journalism, as well as bridge the extension gap in sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition, the Government should consider revamping agricultural extension and merging the extension arm with that of research and development.

Currently, agricultural extension is devolved while research is left with the national government.

Mr Nyang’anga is a Research Fellow and Programme Coordinator, Centre for Agricultural Networking and Information Sharing, University of [email protected]

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