Kenyan honoured for aflatoxin

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Dr Charity Mutegi (left), the winner of the 2013 Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application, with Kenyan Ebby Luvanga who teaches economics at the Iowa State University during the World Food Prize conference in Iowa in the US recently.Photo/FILE

Charity Kawira Mutegi may be little known in Kenya she has won accolades in the international research scene for her work in taming afltoxins.

This month, Dr Mutegi, 38, was recognised in Iowa with the Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application for her work in controlling aflatoxin.

Aflatoxins are produced by fungi called Aspergillus found in the soil. Of the 13 different toxins produced, Aflatoxin B1 is said to be most poisonous.

Apart from causing immune suppression, aflatoxin B1 is believed to be a factor in the increasing cases of liver cancer globally.

The Kenyan scientist is currently the country director of the Afla-safe project run by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture having taken a leave of absence from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari).

While the Sh847,000 ($10,000) award is endowed by the Rockefeller Foundation, it was presented at the World Food Prize conference that Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug conceived to recognise people who make great strides in considerable advances in ensuring global food supply.

“I was brought up by a single father for most of my childhood, his being strict helped to instill the discipline of valuing education at a young age,” she says.

She attributes her liking and subsequent excellence in sciences rather than arts subjects to the fact that her father was a medic.

“While I pursued both my undergraduate and graduate studies in Kenya, I sought to pursue my doctorate at the Kwazulu Natal University in South Africa largely because of the lack of research resources that lacked in the universities at the time,” she explained.

Her interest in combating aflatoxin grew from the fact that it was not an abstract science but rather technology that could be applied in improving the quality of food which people interact with on a daily basis. The Centres for Disease Control estimates that about 70 per cent of Kenya’s population is exposed to aflatoxin contamination in food with the levels of toxicity varying with geographical regions.

Dr Mutegi says the death of 125 Kenyans in 2004 due to aflatoxin poisoning was one of the country’s darkest moments in history.

“It is totally unacceptable that we had to lose such a great number of lives due to something that could have been prevented and having studied food science, I knew that finding a lasting solution would not have been so far-fetched.”

The mother of one says the effects of chronic exposure to aflatoxin are a wake-up call to the government and individuals to ensure the safety of food.

“Aflatoxin has been linked to immune suppression, stunting of growth in children, liver cancer and even death. You really can’t stop getting concerned once you understand the impact,” she said.

Her team is developing a strain of fungus called Afla-safe KE01 which when put in soils where contamination is endemic can outcompete the fungi that release aflatoxin. A single application to a growing field can last for more than one planting and elevate the incomes of smallholder farmers who are left with financial losses once their grain is rejected due to contamination.

“It is good to demystify that biocontrol is not a genetic modification as is the case with biotechnology. We use the organism in its natural environment without modifying it to fight another plant pathogen and biocontrol has been in use for years,” said Dr Mutegi.

Reduce poverty

The cost of losing livelihoods, lives and treating aflatoxin related diseases is much dearer to individuals and governments than investing in preventive measures, she says of the pandemic that affects not only agriculture but also nutrition and trade.

While the system of biocontrol helps to tackle the problem before the grain is harvested, there is a need for farmers to implement good agronomic practices like proper storage to prevent contamination in the harvested crop.

To help reduce post harvest losses, she says, farmers and the government should embrace agricultural innovation across the value chain to ensure the quality of food that is consumed.

“There is a need to mainstream efforts of raising awareness about aflatoxin in the population and the impact of eating contaminated food. If you look at when we began, farmers we worked with had the perception that the deaths that occurred in Ukambani in 2004 were due to witchcraft or eating a poisonous herb,” she said.

The government, she says, should put in place policies that will help bring women, who play a major role in farming, to the forefront in tackling the menace and help transform the agricultural sector to reduce poverty.

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