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Ideas & Debate

Kenya bets on bio-chemical to control aflatoxin menace

Workers offloading maize from a truck
Workers offloading maize from a truck. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Aflatoxin remains one of the major challenges facing farmers and consumers in the country, with more than 70 percent of Kenyans said to be getting exposed to this menace.

In February this year, Nuteez peanut was banned from the shelves by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) after it was found to contain above the required levels of aflatoxin. The product has since been restored to the market after complying.

The approved maximum limit for the cancer-causing aflatoxin is 10 parts per billion.

Consuming food that is contaminated with this fungus exposes children to stunted growth, with scientists arguing that it can be linked to the cancer of the liver.

Human exposure occurs through breast milk, during weaning and consistently throughout an individual’s lifetime either by ingestion, coming into contact or inhalation. According to scientists, no level of exposure is considered safe.

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According to Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Institute (Kalro) about 150 people from lower Eastern Kenya who consumed highly contaminated maize during the 2004 and 2005 cropping seasons died from the effects of aflatoxin. These were just some of the reported cases.

Eliud Kireger, the director-general of Kalro, says aflatoxin is rampant in lower eastern region and parts of Tana River County because of high humidity.

Economic wellbeing

Aflatoxin, says Dr Kireger, is not just a risk to the health of Kenyans but it is also a threat to their economic wellbeing.

For instance, in Hola over 60 per cent of rice was rejected in 2013 after it was found to be having high levels of aflatoxin.

The move saw farmers who had been contracted by the World Food Programme to supply rice lose out on the market because of aflatoxin.

The fungus has also exposed Kenya, which is a food-deficit country, to being more food insecure given the amount of maize that is wasted annually as a result of this menace.

The government recently declared at least 2.3 million bags of maize unfit for human and livestock consumption and trade as a result of aflatoxin contamination, even as the country, still grapples with the shortage of maize.

Since 2010 the country has been losing maize at the national food reserves, much of it found to be contaminated by aflatoxin, making it unfit for human consumption.

However, hope is in the horizon following the establishment of a manufacturing plant for a bio-chemical that can be used to suppress the fungus.

The manufacturing plant for the bio-chemicalnamed Aflasafe KE01 was put up in Machakos by Kalro and international partners in 2015.

This project received funding from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USAid, among other partners.

Kenya is the second country on the continent to have such a plant after Nigeria.

Aflasafe KE01, when applied to maize three weeks before flowering, reduces the aflatoxin contamination in the crop by 70 per cent.

The product costs Sh135 per kilo, with a two-kilo pack being enough to apply an acre of land.

“The adoption of this bio-control technology with other management practices by farmers will reduce aflatoxin contamination by over 70 per cent in maize and groundnut and increase crop value by at least five per cent,’’ Dr Kireger says.

Charity Mutegi, who has been instrumental in the innovation of this bio-chemical in Kenya and the 2013 winner of Borlaug Prize for field research and application, says adoption of this bio tool will go a long way in curbing this menace.

“If applied properly and combined with good agricultural practices, Aflasafe effectively controls aflatoxin during crop development and post-harvesting,’’ says Dr Mutegi, East Africa Aflasafe coordinator.

Dr Kireger said they had planned to supply Aflasafe alongside with other farm inputs this year in a countrywide rollout plan.

Kalro has also trained county chief executives on the importance of aflasafe, where to get it and the cost, noting that last year the Laikipia county government placed an order for six tons for its farmers.

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