Early this month regional traders raised the alarm over contaminated maize and nuts during the fifth African grain trade summit in Mombasa.
Weak monitoring of the safety of the grain being traded, allowing informal channels to expose consumers to the harmful effects of high levels of aflatoxin, was top of their list of concerns.
While the fungi producing toxin can be found in milk, nuts and sometimes cotton seeds, its prevalence in Kenya has affected maize grain more.
Aflatoxicosis, the disease caused by aflatoxin contamination, is prevalent in eastern and parts of western Kenya.
Some of the most common symptoms of the disease include vomiting, abdominal pain, liver failure. In the worst cases, people die.
It is difficult to identify the contaminated from the ordinary maize, making it easy for unscrupulous traders to get it into the food chain.
The executive director of the East Africa Grain Council, Gerald Masila, told the Business Daily that aflatoxin contamination in maize and peanuts has been getting worse.
“Areas not suitable for maize crop are becoming more and more stressed with climate change increasing the incidence of contamination when the rains do not come on time and these grains find their way into the market without being tested,” he said.
He explained that while big processors have the capacity to test for aflatoxin they only serve 40 per cent of the regional market while the rest is fed by the small millers and traders.
“Due to the incidence of aflaxotin in nuts from Kenya and Uganda, we are seeing more processors choosing to import from outside the region and the small scale farmers end up abandoning their only source of livelihood,” said Mr Masila.
Antony Kioko of the Cereal Growers Association (CGA) says this is the main problem for farmers who are unable to market their produce.
“Most of the smallholder farmers have contracts with large companies to deliver maize after every season but once the pre-harvest tests confirm unacceptable levels of afflation, they refuse to buy,” he said.
Mr Kioko noted that the trend has discouraged most of the farmers from growing the crop who spend a lot of time and money on the crop to maturity and harvest.
Farmers and people who work in the grains market say rejection has pushed the small-scale groups from the business.
“The losses depend on how big a farm was planted, if about 2,000 bags are condemned then the losses can run into millions of shillings with the current market price of about Sh3,000 per 90 kilokgramme bag,” he added.
The CGA executive notes that while the government condemns maize containing more than the allowed levels of 10 parts per billion, no effort is made to ensure that whatever is afafected is destroyed to ensure that the produce gets out of circulation.
“There is nothing you can see and clearly identify that this maize has aflatoxin and somehow it finds its way to consumers who include the farmers. There is a need to create a sustained campaign to create awareness on aflatoxin among farmers as well as address the causes of contamination,” he added. Lack of proper storage facilities is identified as one of the main challenges that have led to contamination after harvest.
Evans Wasike, the spokesman of the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB), says one of the ways of overcoming the problem is farmers making use of the warehouse receipting systems.
“Collecting maize once it is harvested and storing it in one of the warehouses within the system will ensure that the moisture content is maintained within acceptable levels, reducing the chances of contamination for many farmers who do not have storage capacity,” he said
The cereals board is about to start collecting maize from farmers from large producers for strategic food reserves to boost the three million bags currently in store.
Mr Wasike said the cereals agency conducts pre-harvest tests to determine the levels of aflatoxin in various areas and advise the ministries of Agriculture and Health when they identify grain with higher contents.
Up to 6,000 bags of maize have been lying at the NCPB depot in Bura for the last three years having been collected from farmers under the Bura and Hola irrigation schemes in Tana River County.
The grain was rejected and continues to be bonded at the warehouse amid fears that it is contaminated with aflatoxin.
Last year, the parliamentary group on agriculture led by the then chairman John Mututho visited the depot and told the Ministry of Health to run fresh tests on the grain, citing corruption and sabotage of the irrigation schemes that had been revived under the economic stimulus programme.
In 2010, the government rendered 2.3 million bags of maize unfit for human and livestock consumption due to the high levels of toxicity due to aflatoxin.
The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) estimates the rejection of the grain that represented 10 per cent of the harvest that year led to farmers incurring losses of $100 million.
The Centre for Disease Control estimates that globally, 4.5 billion people living in developing countries are affected by aflatoxin every year.
IITA also estimates that globally about $1.2 billion is lost annually due to aflatoxin contamination, with African economies bearing the greater loss of $450 million each year.
While cases of fatalities due to aflatoxicosis have been reported in Kenya since 1978, the 2004 outbreak that affected more than 300 people in the then Eastern Province and killed 125 people is the worst in history.
Scientists at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) are exploring ways of reducing contamination of maize, which is the staple food for many households.
Kari’s Katumani Centre director Charles Kariuki said that scientists and researchers were exploring ways to better improve the country’s yield by tackling alfatoxin.
“There is a lot going on with regards to aflatoxin. For instance, we have teams trying to evaluate the susceptibility of the maize varieties to find solutions for each of them,” he said.
Dr Kariuki also noted that they were developing other better testing tools to raise chances of detecting “with certainty” the level of aflatoxin not just in a sack of maize but in a single maize kernel.