The Kenyan farmer’s level of awareness of the risks of toxic substances produced by fungi, i.e. mycotoxins, varies. In areas where the problem of acute poisoning has already risen, people have a better understanding of the risks. In other areas people are in danger of exposure to the mycotoxins because they cannot make the connection between contaminated feed and aflatoxin in milk and its effects.
Mycotoxins are formed in susceptible grains such as maize and sorghum if they are handled or stored in wrong conditions. This is one of the biggest food safety problems in the world and especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. One of the most toxic mycotoxins, aflatoxin, affects almost one quarter of global food and feed output. Aflatoxin reduces productivity of the livestock, which decreases farmers’ income. Aflatoxin contaminated maize has caused acute poisoning leading to death of hundreds of people in certain areas of Kenya. Contaminated milk may increase the chronic exposure of people to aflatoxin, as milk is a staple food in many areas of Kenya.
– Many of the farmers who don’t understand the risk would feed moldy or spoilt maize to animals as feed, and drink the milk from these animals, which is the problem we are focusing on within the FoodAfrica programme, says Professor Erastus Kangethe from the University of Nairobi.
Quite a lot of research has been conducted on aflatoxins but FoodAfrica is the first project that is focusing on putting economic figures on the effects of aflatoxin on livestock and potential health risks caused by contaminated milk.
Capital investments needed
Aflatoxin contamination can be avoided with good agricultural practices, for example crop rotation. Crop rotation reduces the soil fungal population and therefore lowers the toxigenic fungi in the soil that can cause pre-harvest infestation. The proportion using crop rotation i.e. maize and legumes is only about 20 percent in the Nandi and Makueni areas where research on the subject has been done.
Other methods even more rarely used by farmers to avoid contamination are soil amendments, certified seed varieties, harvesting techniques, threshing, drying and storage methods.
– Use of crop rotation and other good methods require some capital investments by the communities, which is a problem in these areas, because of high poverty levels. In Nandi 29 percent of the population live in poverty and in Makueni 64 percent, Professor Kangethe says.
A technical problem is hard to understand
Lack of information and understanding among the smallholders is the most important hindrance when it comes to avoiding aflatoxin contamination. There have been cutbacks in the Kenyan extension services and thus the capacity to carry the message to the farmers is not there.
The low literacy and education level of most of the rural population is another hindrance. The women are known to carry out the major tasks in farming and to prepare food for their families. Meanwhile, over 60 percent of the female population in both Nandi and Makueni has only attended primary education or lower.
– Aflatoxin control is a technical problem and understanding it requires more educated cadre. The awareness, including knowledge, comprehension and action, is crucial to the control, Professor Kangethe explains.
Improving farmer awareness
– In another project (ICI Kenya) funded by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland learn-by-doing farmer field schools will be used to impart the awareness. In this project we shall also provide inputs for now and develop techniques to prepare some of the critical inputs – soil amendments with local materials, Professor Kangethe says.
Professor Kangethe also says that the communities that supplied samples for the FoodAfrica research will be the first ones to hear about the results. This ensures that the control measures can start at village level. Equally important is presenting the results to the policy makers in order to formulate policies for national control.
Erastus Kangethes work forms one part of FoodAfrica work package 5, in which researchers from the University of Nairobi, ILRI, IFPRI and MTT are cooperating for risk reduction of mycotoxins within the feed-dairy chain in Kenya. Professor Kangethe is supervising two PhD students from the University of Nairobi, who work at ILRI and do their theses within the FoodAfrica programme.
Professor Erastus Kangethe, University of Nairobi, mburiajudith(a)gmail.com