How are soil micronutrients, safe milk and maize, and child nutrition interrelated? In sub-Saharan Africa, these issues are intertwined. Finnish and international researchers have been seeking solutions to improving food safety as part of the FoodAfrica research programme coordinated by the Natural Resources Institute Finland.

The results of the FoodAfrica research programme, which brings together research expertise from West Africa, East Africa and Finland, will help African smallholder farmers to produce safer milk and maize, and improve the profitability of agricultural production.

Through this programme, coordinated by Luke, researchers have been seeking solutions for improving food security in Africa and passing them on to local, small-scale farmers and regional policymakers. African research expertise and laboratory capacity has also been improved.

“FoodAfrica has generated substantial results on topics which had not previously been researched. We will continue putting the results into practice in the second phase, which will begin in the summer”, says the Programme Director, Professor Martti Esala of Luke.

Safe milk and profitable production

The results of the programme reveal that a quarter of Kenyan milk contains aflatoxins, which are poisonous to humans and can originate in the mould fungi that grow in poorly dried feed.

“Exposure to aflatoxins reduces the productivity of livestock, thereby reducing farmers’ incomes. If dairy cattle are given feed containing aflatoxins, the toxins transfer to the milk and are consumed by humans. Because milk is an important source of protein in Kenya, milk containing high levels of aflatoxins poses a major health risk, particularly for growing children”, says Vesa Joutsjoki, a Principal Research Scientist at Luke.

The findings of the FoodAfrica research programme show that consumers are willing to pay for safe milk. If producers could get a better price for their milk they would be able to use more effective dryers that better preserve their maize.

Depending on their cattle breeds and husbandry methods, the income difference between Senegalese dairy farming families can be as high as eight-fold.

Market access can be achieved via text messaging or training

FoodAfrica also involved research on the market access of products. Surveys carried out in Ghana and Uganda revealed that farmers sell only just over a third of their harvest.

“Mobile phones are common in Africa, but they have not been used in the marketing of agricultural products. For example, announcing market prices of products via text message would be a useful means of improving farmers’ market access. It would help them to get a better price for the product”, says Professor Jarkko Niemi of Luke.

In addition, mutual exchange of information between farmers is an effective way of improving the skills and market access of producers. FoodAfrica involved an investigation of the use of voluntary farmer trainers as disseminators of information.

“One trainer can train more than 50 colleagues in a short period of time. The research revealed that the voluntary training helps farmers, particularly women, to improve their skills and raise their incomes, thus contributing to equality”, Jarkko Niemi says.

The soil lacks minerals and the plate lacks nutrients

The more than 1,700 soil samples analysed around Africa during the research programme demonstrate that African soil lacks many micronutrients that are vital to plants, animals and humans.

“After World War II, we in Finland managed to improve the composition of our nutrition and enhance public health by charting micronutrients and engaging in soil improvement. This is the experience lying behind the programme”, says Martti Esala.

The nutritional content of food that ends up on Africans’ plates was studied in Benin and Kenya.

“Despite the fact that families in Benin have a reasonably varied diet, 80 percent of them live in a precarious situation with respect to food safety”, says professor Maria Mutanen from the University of Helsinki.

In Kenya, children from poor neighbourhoods who had been subjected to aflatoxins were smaller, although no clear relationship was established between aflatoxin levels and dwarfism.

FoodAfrica is funded by the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the CGIAR institutes (Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research). In addition to Luke, which is acting as the programme coordinator, participants include Bioversity International, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the World Agroforestry Center, the University of Helsinki and Hämeenlinna University of Applied Sciences (HAMK).