More than 70 per cent of Kenyans are chronically exposed to aflatoxin, a trend agriculture researchers fear is contributing to the increasing health bill and food insecurity.
Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Karlo) and International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) researchers say that 90 per cent of locally grown food, mainly maize, is treated informally thus leading to spread of aflatoxins.
Karlo director general Eliud Kireger said farmers’ inability to observe good agricultural practices and lack of pesticides has led to high presence of aflatoxins in food crops. Crops infested with fungi include maize, peanuts, cottonseed and tree nuts.
“Aflatoxin management in the country has been a major problem especially in maize growing regions in the Semi and Arid Areas (Asals) due to high levels of humidity,” said Kireger.
In 2014, farmers in Hola and Bura irrigation scheme in Tana River County suffered heavy losses after 80 per cent of their maize harvest was contaminated by aflatoxin. Government response through the line ministries of health and agriculture led to destruction of 13,992 tonnes of maize suspected to have aflatoxin.
In September 2004, the government, acting on court orders, destroyed 417 bags of bad maize in Makueni County.
IITA scientists say that local regulatory organisations lack the capacity to detect aflatoxins while farmers lack resources to prevent its spread.
Charity Mutegi of IITA says low income families are more susceptible to eating food contaminated with aflatoxin as they lack the choice of a diversified diet.
In some counties, for example, those in the Asal regions, aflatoxin concentration levels often stand at between 2.5 parts per billion (ppb) and 1,500ppb.
The EU’s recommended mean concentration of aflatoxin stands at 4ppb while in Kenya a contaminated food crop is considered safe if it has aflatoxin levels of 10ppb. Recently, during a recent tour in Hola, Tana River County, farmers recalled harrowing situations they grappled with in 2012/13 production period.
National Irrigation Board has been working with farmers in Hola and Bura irrigation schemes to produce maize for consumption and commercial purposes.
John Musumbi, a farmer at the Hola scheme confirmed that during the period he produced 63 bags of maize in his contracted three hectares out of which he lost 38 bags after they were declared unfit for human consumption due to high-levels of aflatoxin.
This also happened to hundreds of other farmers in the area as there was no quick remedy to tame the spread of aflatoxin.
In 2015, Karlo in conjunction with IITA and other development partners constructed a Sh130 million state-of-the-art factory at Katumani in Machakos County to produce Aflasafe KE01 –chemical used to help in taming the spread of aflatoxin in food crops.
The facility, with a production capacity of 10 tonnes per day, began operations in 2017 with its first production of 150 tonnes distributed to Laikipia, Kajiado and Makueni counties.
Currently, Kireger confirmed, the facility has 200 tonnes of Aflasafe in stores and Karlo is working on having it distributed to farmers. The facility, which is the second in Africa after Nigeria’s, is also developing Aflasafe for other East African countries.
He acknowledged that there has been limited information on availability of Aflasafe, how it is used but hastened to add that a sound business plan is being worked on largely to address distribution of the product.
“We are reaching out to counties to buy on behalf of the small-scale farmers so that the latter can use it in the current season,” he said.
“Farmers should apply Aflasafe three weeks before flowering, which will reduce aflatoxin contamination in maize by 70 per cent,” says Noah Wawire, director of Aflasafe Centre at Katumani.