Agriculture is the backbone of the Rwandan economy, accounting for 80% of the country’s income and 39% of the gross domestic product – as well as 90% of the country’s food needs (World Bank, 2013).
A major threat to farmers’ crops – and to both the agricultural economy and the nation’s nutritional security – are aflatoxins – toxic substances produced by certain types of fungi that are found naturally all over the world.
Aflatoxin can contaminate food crops and pose a serious threat to the health of humans and livestock.
Beyond the health risks, aflatoxins also represent a significant economic burden, causing the annual destruction of at least 25% of the world’s food crops (World Health Organization, 2018).
Aflatoxins are common in many crops, found in maize, peanuts, rice, sorghum, millet, wheat, and cassava, due to pre- and post-harvest fungal contamination.
Since contamination can occur at any stage from field to table, an integrated approach is needed to reduce the health and economic risks posed by aflatoxins.
This means training farmers on how to avoid contamination during and after harvest, the proper drying and storage of sensitive plant products, and the appropriate alternative uses to retain at least some economic return on the value of damaged crops.
Maize is one of the most productive crops, important as it is, maize growers face a great challenge in this sector due to the aflatoxin virus which is commonly found in cereals.
Aflatoxins are potent carcinogens and can affect all organ systems, especially the liver and kidneys; they cause liver cancer and have been linked to other types of cancer (WHO, 2018).
The government of Rwanda and its partners are working to alleviate the problem and develop a sustainable solution by using traditional Rwandan farming practices to reduce seed contamination and improve the quality of corn after harvest.
Traditionally, farmers would harvest corn and dry it on the ground, but in the back of their minds they kept few corn seeds on the combs to store them as seedlings for the planting season.
The selected corn seeds would be hung upside down (Gusharika) on a line outside or inside the house, to prevent moisture and fungal attacks on the seeds which cause toxins (aflatoxins) which are dangerous to the human liver when consumed.
Over the past two years, the Clinton Development Initiative (CDI), the Department of Agriculture, the Eastern African Grain Council (EAGC) and Africa Improved Foods (AIF) have teamed up to implement a funded project by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) to tackle aflatoxin in the maize supply chain.
The objective of this project, funded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) was to reduce aflatoxin levels in maize through increased awareness of aflatoxin and the use of management strategies. aflatoxin; training of farmers on the causes, risks, detection, prevention, control and postharvest of aflatoxin in maize.
By the end of 2020, 59,430 farmers had been trained and over 61,000 farmers had participated in field training events in seven districts of Orient Province, Kirehe, Ngoma, Bugesera, Kayonza, Rwamagana, Gatsibo and Nyagatare.
Since then, considerable progress has been made in understanding and applying best practices related to the reduction and production of aflatoxins in the corn supply chain.
The amount of Grade 1 cereals sold to AIF increased from 61.3% in Season B of 2019 to 91.1% in Season A of 2020. In addition, 90% of corn on the cob sold to the AIF was grade 1.
The president of the Kohiika cooperative, Gloriose Mukamana, attests to the importance of these trainings by declaring:
“After aflatoxin training our production increased, where we bought 200 tonnes of maize from our cooperative members, we can now get over 1,100 tonnes of first and second grade maize. The revenues increased due to the increased production offered. through the market to our cooperative, ”Mukamana said.
Mukamana said the cooperative has been able to reduce the effects of aflatoxin in our crops to a good percentage of at least 95%.
“Our farmers are happy because none of their products has been rejected from the quality market as before.
We still have farmers who find it difficult to take good care of their production and what we are doing is educating them again about the side effects of aflatoxin and the losses it can cause to their production ”, Mukamana said.
At the cooperative, they hope that every farmer understands the benefits of aflatoxin control and that we will be aflatoxin free.
However, there is still a long way to go. Currently, only around 60,000 farmers have been trained in aflatoxin reduction and management by CDI Rwanda.
Cooperatives and farming communities are one way of reaching farmers more effectively.
CDI has supported the formation of community farming groups through its efforts over the past 15 years in the country, to help farmers meet community agribusiness compliance standards, become more independent and improve their life in a sustainable way.
With the standards in place, it will be easy to access farmers and provide them with knowledge on how to control aflatoxin in crops in large numbers as a cooperative.
Looking ahead, there are many opportunities for various actors and solutions in the agricultural sector to tackle this problem on a large scale.
Existing post-harvest harvesting and drying procedures in Rwanda take too long.
It is carried out by maize producers with limited or no access to drying and storage facilities based on subsistence or local market consumption.
These rudimentary post-harvest practices have led to long-standing quality problems and contribute to the presence of aflatoxins.
These problems are further aggravated by the unavailability of drying facilities.
Critical investments are still needed to build on this work and make further progress against aflatoxins.
Experts say the agricultural sector needs investments in dryers, warehouses, Aflasafe; other inputs that could help mitigate the presence of aflatoxin in production; and the development of new varieties of maize which may be more resistant to aflatoxin.
Farmers called on partners, donors and markets to come together to support this aflatoxin control work, enable corn markets to thrive and boost healthy communities.
The partnership between the Ministry of Agriculture and partners is just the start and a great example of impactful work that needs to be scaled up across Rwanda and beyond to see aflatoxin reduction that will allow to unlock stronger and more resilient business ties.