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Alleviating aflatoxin in Africa

In Kenya today, the issues of food security and food quality have been under intense discussion following the outbreak of aflatoxin contamination in maize in recent years. At CIMMYT, the aflatoxin control project, which began in 2009, is headed by George Mahuku and Hugo de Groote, alongside Jon Hellin.

The Aflacontrol Project held a stakeholders’ conference on 13 January 2011 at the Southern Sun Hotel in Nairobi. The objective of the conference was to present the preliminary results of an aflatoxin analysis along the maize value chain—from the farmers’ fields to the table—and to inform and engage the many stakeholders who play a role in reducing the risk of Aflatoxin. In attendance were about 90 participants including agricultural scientists, government representatives, artisans, millers, animal nutrition producers and private sector practitioners, farmers, and the media. After the introduction and welcome by Steve Collins, the project’s Head of Communication and Advocacy at the ACDI-VOCA, Diana Grusczynski of the B&MGF, speaking on videophone from Seattle, gave a welcome address.

During the workshop, among the issues discussed were the incidence and prevalence of aflatoxin along the maize value chain and strategies to minimize contamination (e.g. use of biocontrol agents, agronomic practices, drying, storage and processing methods); methodologies for identifying contaminated samples (diagnostics); and alternatives for use of contaminated foodstuffs. In his presentation, KARI Director Ephraim Mukisira assured participants that the government of Kenya supports the Aflacontrol project and would like to see concrete solutions for managing and minimizing aflatoxin contamination. Considering maize consumption in Kenya is estimated at 98kg per person annually, “It is critical to find viable solutions and rapidly. We must work together to bring a positive impact to farmers,” he concluded.

Preliminary results were given by Pippa Trench, from IFPRI, and CIMMYT’s George Mahuku. Key in the findings were the incomplete knowledge by farmers, concerns on storage practices, the potential use of mills as an avenue of information, need for rapid testing, and the complexity of trade. Mahuku presented preliminary results from the work of CIMMYT and KARI, identifying critical contamination points along the maize value chain. The preliminary results revealed that contamination starts at field level and increases under poor storage. Therefore, strategies aimed at minimizing infection by the aflatoxin producing fungi, Aspergillus flavus, and adoption of proper harvesting and post-harvest technologies are likely to have the greatest impact to minimize aflatoxin contamination.

“Some farmers believe that contamination comes from other countries and national maize is free of aflatoxin. They are exposed to aflatoxin poisoning under this mistaken sense of security,” said Mahuku. “Information dissemination, awareness creation and education of farmers are crucial to combat the aflatoxin problem in Kenya,” added Mahuku. “This information should be packaged in a format and language that is easily understood by the farmers and consumers.” Control strategies should focus on minimizing contamination in the field, rather than post-contamination. It is also important to note that aflatoxin is invisible, and can be present in apparently clean looking maize.

The Aflacontrol Project is facilitated by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (B&MGF), and CIMMYT is one of its seven partners. Others are the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), Agricultural Cooperative Development international/Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance (ACDI/VOCA), International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), University of Pittsburgh, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUSH) and Institut d’Economie Rurale (IER).

For more information, visit the project website, http://programs.ifpri.org/afla/afla.asp.