Aflatoxins are natural poisons produced when certain mould species (Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus) grow in foods.
Maize, peanuts, dried spices, and tree nuts are the most likely foods to contain aflatoxins, but contaminated feed can also lead to livestock products containing aflatoxins.
The aflatoxin-producing Aspergillus species grow best in tropical climates.
In livestock, aflatoxins can cause weight loss and death. Chicken fed contaminated feed lay 70% fewer eggs than those on normal diets.
Africa loses an estimated $670 million in rejected export trade annually due to contaminated by aflatoxins.
To address this situation in Ghana, the government in December 2018, launched a 17-member national steering committee for aflatoxin control.
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is supporting the committee and other stakeholders with resources to check the aflatoxin infestation.
Business Insider Sub-Saharan Africa (BISSA) met with Ghana’s Country Head of AGRA, Foster Kwame Boateng (FKB) for an interview.
BISSA: Why is it so important for AGRA to work in Ghanaian communities?
FKB: The vision of AGRA in Ghana is to see how best we can improve the productivity of smallholder farmers and increase incomes of the households of these smallholder farmers.
In this case, we are talking about increasing productivity and creating a market for them to sell their produce. And we are dealing with commodities like maize, soybean, rice, cassava and working in selected regions like Brong Ahafo and Northern Ghana.
It is one thing helping farmers to increase production and another thing helping them churn out quality products that will get the premium price for what the market requires.
AGRA is running in 3 streams of work. First of all, how do we help Ghana to transform agriculture from subsistence level to a commercial enterprise? How do we support the government because for us agriculture development requires a multi-faceted approach? We also believe agricultural transformation should be driven by the government.
BISSA: What is the effect of aflatoxin on the Ghanaian farmer?
FKB: We have come to realise that we have a number of food processing companies in the country. Nestle is one example. Nestle travels all the way from Ghana to import maize. Meanwhile, we have farmers who produce maize.
The maize our farmers produce is not different from the imported one in the sense that our farmers produce the same kind of maize but the quality is questionable. While Nestle is looking for quality maize with aflatoxin level of 4 parts per billion (ppb) Ghanaian farmers are producing maize which has between 100 and 200ppb. So they do not meet the quality even though there is a huge market our smallholder farmers can tap into.
BISSA: Why should we be worried?
FKB: Most people in this country treat aflatoxin like it is nothing. But it is assuming a public health dimension because aflatoxin can cause cancer. Also when you feed maize that is infected to chickens it will inhibit their growth.
So we need to treat aflatoxin as a public health issue and that is why we thought that we should support the government to come out with a legislation to improve food safety.
BISSA: What is AGRA’s input in the government committee?
FKB: AGRA builds capacities and allows governments to drive the agenda. So AGRA provided a technical assistance grant to the STEPRI unit of CSIR (STEPRI is the policy arm of CSIR) to begin to look into how best they will draft the regulation to be able to improve aflatoxin control.
In the government’s own wisdom, it thinks that these are the institutions that I can coopt onto a committee to work on it.
The regulation alone cannot reduce aflatoxin levels. We have also followed up with another grant that is looking at the actual implementation of the regulation and then another one for building capacity and awareness.
You cannot see with your physical eyes aflatoxin on somebody’s maize so we need to also create awareness. In creating awareness, we are bringing in the Ghana Standard Board, Food and Drug Authority, other private agro-processing companies and the public.
BISSA: What are your expectations?
FKB: We want to see a country where our aflatoxin level is at 15ppb (which is the current standard for Ghana). It is our hope that within the next 3 years we bring aflatoxin level to at least 15ppb and even less.
BISSA: What help do you offer to farmers?
FKB: We help and teach farmers how to apply what we call Aflasafe before and after production in order to reduce aflatoxin levels in the produce.
At the same time if farmers harvest their maize and they don’t store it well it can also be aflatoxin infested. So we also help them to look at how best they dry the maize and their farming operations
BISSA: How ready are farmers to receive what you teach them?
FKB: They say that tradition dies hard. But we make the farmers know that they are also at risk since they consume some of what they produce.
It is also affecting their income since food processing companies will not buy produce that is infected. They may sell it in the open market but probably a company like Nestle would have given them a better premium on quality maize.
A continuous sensitization programme will help the farmers understand this situation.
Aside from farmers and government, how are you getting other stakeholders involved?
For example, we are rolling up a programme with Nestle to also help train our farmers and aggregators to know the best practices they need to implement to meet the standards.
We are involving the off-takers or the buyers as well. This is because in this particular game we need to produce what the market is looking for and know how we can strengthen our farmers to meet such standards.
BISSA: Will Ghana ever get there?
FKB: Yes, we will. This is because some aggregators in Ghana are meeting the standards and selling to food processing companies.
If we have regulation and we enforce it we can do it.
FKB: It is not only about the law, but sensitization must also be done consistently. The media and religious bodies, especially the church, must take charge and lead this call.