A lack of knowledge about aflatoxin, a deadly toxin found in grains, has emerged as a major hurdle in combating the menace, as the East African Community grapples with a rising number of mycotoxin cases.

The inability of most farmers to access appropriate technologies for aflatoxin mitigation and the limited involvement of the private sector in its management have also hindered efforts to control the problem, according to EAC.

Insufficient baseline data on aflatoxin “hot spots” across the Partner States and porous borders facilitating the spread of contaminated grains have also been identified as contributing factors.

Furthermore, there is a notable lack of awareness among those involved in the value chain, from farmers to consumers, about the socioeconomic consequences of consuming or trading in aflatoxin-contaminated food and feed.

These issues were discussed during a two-day regional workshop on aflatoxin prevention and control in the East African Community Partner States, held in Kampala, Uganda.

The workshop, sponsored by USAID-Kenya/East Africa, aimed to assess progress made in implementing the regional strategy for aflatoxin prevention and control, identify bottlenecks, and chart a way forward.

Agricultural commodities make up around 65 percent of intra-regional trade in the East African Community, and the annual losses due to aflatoxin contamination in Africa have surged to $670 million. Aflatoxin is also responsible for 30 percent of liver cancer cases on the continent.

Marie-Chantal Niyuhire of the Institute of Agricultural Sciences of Burundi highlighted challenges in Burundi, such as the lack of research results on the impact of aflatoxin contamination on human health and the absence of equipment for mycotoxin detection and analysis.

In Kenya, significant strides have been made in aflatoxin containment, with 650 County Public Health officers trained in aflatoxin screening and the establishment of mini laboratories in 18 counties for continuous surveillance.

A regional mycotoxin laboratory at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) was also cited as another milestone.

Kenya has also promoted the warehouse receipt system, used binders in animal feed manufacturing, established an aflasafe production plant at KALRO, and distributed 350 tonnes of the product through public-private partnerships.

In Uganda, a poor food safety culture and pockets of food insecurity and poverty have raised the costs of compliance with food safety standards.

Trucks queuing to pick maize at NCPB depot. Photo (courtesy).
Trucks queuing to pick maize at NCPB depot. Photo (courtesy).

However, efforts to combat aflatoxin contamination include equipping and accrediting the Uganda National Bureau of Statistics (UNBS) Lab for aflatoxin testing, developing an Aflatoxin Biocontrol Agent, and procuring rapid testing kits for grain producer groups.

In Rwanda, the lack of reliable and cost-effective aflatoxin detection methods, weak enforcement of regulations, limited access to drying technologies, and inadequate storage facilities are challenges in prevention of the mycotoxins.

Tanzania has taken measures such as controlling field infection by fungi, addressing insect infestations in stored grains, and establishing mini-labs at border posts. The country’s TANIPAC project has benefited and built the capacities of thousands of farmers.

Aflatoxin contamination results in suppressed intra-regional trade in grains, with Uganda and Tanzania losing significant sums due to reduced agricultural exports. Aflatoxin also decreases the availability of food for consumption, creating a food security gap.

To address these challenges, industry leaders called for self-regulation involving various measures, including promoting good agricultural practices, certifying warehouses and value chain players, enhancing awareness, and incentivizing food safety compliance.

Paloma Fernandes, CEO of the Cereal Millers Association of Kenya, urged industry leaders to take the lead in food safety and emphasised the need for a holistic approach that encompasses the entire value chain.

Enock Warinda, Executive Director of the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA), stressed the need for better coordination among partners involved in aflatoxin control within Member States and the EAC.

ASARECA plans to coordinate interventions for aflatoxin prevention and control by promoting proven best management practices, including disposal, prevention, mitigation, and identifying alternative approaches.