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Kenya can’t regulate its way out of aflatoxin menace

By Vivian Hoffmann | May 14th 2021
Farmers and other agricultural workers may be exposed by inhaling dust generated during the handling and processing of contaminated crops and feeds. [Kipsang Joseph/Standard]

Efforts to control aflatoxin in Kenya mostly focus on testing maize once it reaches our borders, or once it hits supermarket shelves.

Enforcement of food safety regulations is necessary but insufficient to solve this problem. Aflatoxin contamination must be addressed at its root, during production and on-farm storage.

Research by International Food Policy Research Institute and others points to some solutions including education, incentivising farmers and removing the middleman. Educating farmers about how to prevent aflatoxin leads to better practices, which can also improve the quality of grain.

Kenya must also make aflatoxin prevention technologies affordable. Most farmers dry their maize on old woven sisal bags, through which mold spores can permeate. Upgrading to impermeable tarps or drying sheets is a highly cost-effective approach to aflatoxin control, but still costs farmers more than used bags. The new KEBS standard for tarps used in agriculture, which is expected to increase the availability of lower-cost tarps, is an important step forward.

Farmers should also start using solutions such as Aflasafe; a fungus applied to the soil while crops are growing. It is another effective tool in the aflatoxin-prevention arsenal. The challenge is that aflatoxin hot-spots in Kenya tend to have relatively low yields, making Aflasafe, which is applied on a per-area basis, expensive per bag of maize produced. Subsidies for Aflasafe and drying tarps could be considered for farmers in these regions.

Furthermore, there should be a direct link between farmers and millers. We can’t expect farmers to invest in aflatoxin prevention if they aren’t rewarded for it. Offering premium prices for maize that meets safety and quality standards leads to better on-farm practices, lower contamination, and higher farm income.

Setting up direct-purchase relationships with farmers is more complicated, and more costly for millers than simply checking the quality at the factory gate, but it’s a key step toward fixing a broken system. Government and development partners interested in promoting Kenya’s agricultural sector should give a serious look at investing in developing these linkages.

Regulation is important, probably responsible for the fact that aflatoxin contamination tends to be lower in formally processed, packaged maize flour than in informally milled posho, and lowest in the highest-priced brands. But when millers reject contaminated maize to comply with standards, the maize doesn’t disappear. It usually ends up in the bulk grain market. Poison is taken off the plates of the well-off but is eaten by those who focus on getting enough to eat, not its safety. It’s time to take the poison off all of our plates, starting at the farm.

Ms Hoffmann is Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, Nairobi

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