The Kenyan government has approved $10.7 million from the national treasury to fight aflatoxins in the country.
The money will be spent in the next two financial years to create awareness on the fungal moulds that grow on food crops including maize and groundnuts; conduct a national survey that will help develop outbreak trends and risk maps; and promote proper drying, shelling and storage technologies to minimise contamination.
The move is an acknowledgement of the fact that climate change is complicating measures put in place to control aflatoxins. For example, drought-stressed crops are more susceptible to aflatoxin accumulation.
According to Sicily Kariuki, the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, the focus will be on eastern and southwestern Kenya which are hardest hit by aflatoxin contamination. Counties targeted include Machakos, Makueni, Kitui, Embu, Tharaka Nithi, Tana River, Kilifi, Kwale, Lamu and parts of Muranga.
Aflatoxins (Aspergillus mycotoxins) are toxic chemicals produced as by-products by fungi (moulds). The toxins can cause both acute and chronic toxicity in humans and animals. Researchers say that poor handling of produce and the lack of access to proper harvesting technologies increases the chances of contamination.
The funding to fight aflatoxins in the country comes as a relief to researchers who have been asking for adequate resources to do the job.
Sheila Okoth, an associate professor of botany at the University of Nairobi’s School of Biological Sciences, said she hopes part of the money will go into ongoing research at centres such as the International Livestock Research Institute and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, which are already conducting trials on tackling aflatoxins.
“While the toxins occur everywhere in the world, they particularly pose high risks in tropical developing countries such as Kenya where staple foods such as maize and sorghum comprise a large part of the diets of the poor,” said Prof Okoth.
“The disease-causing fungi thrive in the soils of tropical regions due to the warm temperatures and moisture, making prevention difficult; control is the only way out,” said the professor.
She said that it was important that the government sets up centralised drying and storage facilities in counties for farmers, as is the case in developed countries.
Prof Okoth said that because farmers often feed mouldy grain to livestock, this exposes humans to toxins that accumulate in dairy products and eggs.
“The problem is that most foodstuffs are produced and consumed locally with limited or no testing by the relevant authorities,” she said. “There is an urgent need to create public awareness and conduct training and research, as well as set appropriate standards and regulations to ensure that products comply with both regional and international market requirements.”
Aflatoxins are estimated to contaminate 25 per cent of the global food supply — with 4.5 billion people exposed to high, unmonitored levels — primarily in developing countries.
Kenya is one of the world’s hotspots for aflatoxins, with 2004 and 2010 being the years the country recorded the highest incidences of acute toxicity since the country started keeping records.
The government estimates that 10 per cent of the maize harvest was contaminated, with losses valued at over $1 billion, cutting across the value chain, affecting farmers, millers, traders and consumers.
Across East Africa, approximately 132 million people depend on maize as a staple food. Maize crops are susceptible to accumulation of toxic fungal metabolites (mycotoxins).
Given the technology required for detection, these invisible toxins are under-recognised, putting at risk the health of African populations and setting barriers to development and trade.
At the regional level, the East African Community Secretariat is spearheading the implementation of the Multi-Regional Aflatoxin Abatement Project on aflatoxin prevention and control, with financial support from the United States Agency for International Development regional office for East Africa. The project aims at preventing and controlling the adverse impacts of aflatoxins along the food and feed value chain.
At the continental level, the African Union Commission has established the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa secretariat, which acts as the point of reference on control of the toxins.