Mwangi Mumero @PeopleDailyKe
Low-cost grain drying and storage technologies such as hermetic bags and hygrometers could prevent post-harvest crop losses and harmful aflatoxins contaminations, a new research study by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (Cimmyt) in collaboration with the Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) has shown.
The study, funded by the US government-funded agency US-Aid — measured maize grain quality parameters such as brain damage, weight loss in storage, fungal growth and mycotoxins, food quality and seed germination.
The results showed hermetic bags were highly effective in averting grain loss for up to one year. “If these bags are sealed properly, oxygen cannot get in or out. This creates an anaerobic environment that suffocates grain-damaging insects and prevents fungi from growing,” says Cimmyt economist Hugo De Groote.
The study conducted between May 2017 and May 2018 in Kiboko, Makueni county, compared the performance of various hermetic storage containers and bags by different manufacturers with farmers’ usual storage practices.
Some of the hermetic bags studied were developed by the African Technical Research Centre (ATRC) with experts warning that most of the insect infestations start in the field.
According to Johnson Odera, ATRC director, most farmers harvest and transport the grains home while already infested in the field. “The damage can be extensive depending on the level of infestation. One of the ways to minimise the losses, while keeping the food safe for consumption is to use hermetic bags,” he added.
However, the study noted that most of the hermetic bags are largely unavailable to farmers due to low awareness and the prohibitive cost of the bags.
Unlike normal storage bags that cost about Sh70 each, hermetic bags retail for Sh200 and Sh250. A second study conducted with maize producers and traders in Kakamega indicates that dropping prices by 20 per cent has the potential to increase their sales by 88 per cent.
Use of low-cost hygrometers will also help farmers accurately measure moisture content. Reducing moisture content by one or two per cent will make a difference in reducing aflatoxin contamination – cutting losses in grains. The average price of a hygrometer is Sh120 per piece, according to the study.
Research has shown that smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa lose up to a third of their grain after harvest because they often use poor grain storage technologies and ineffective drying practices. Staples like maize stored on-farm are exposed to infestation by insects and fungi.
These can lead to contamination with mycotoxins, in particular, aflatoxins, poisonous food toxins produced by Aspergillus fungi. At high doses, aflatoxins can kill. Prolonged exposure to aflatoxins can impact consumers’ health, suppressing immune systems, hindering child growth and even causing liver cancer. Kenya is a particular hotspot for aflatoxins, as regular studies show widespread contamination along the food chain, from maize grain to milk and meat.