The objectives of this project are to 1) link farmers in Meru County, Kenya with entrepreneurs offering technologies (mobile dryers and biocontrol) to reduce toxic fungal contamination, and 2) establish direct commercial relationships between maize aggregators serving these farmers and formal sector maize millers, in order to motivate adoption of food safety technologies, boost farmer incomes, and improve health.
Food safety has become an important precondition for access to global food markets and increasingly for high-value domestic markets in developing countries (Ashraf, Gine and Karlan, 2009; Van Beuningen and Knorringa, 2009). At the same time, foodborne pathogens and toxins exact a significant health toll in developing countries (WHO, 2015), particularly among the poorest (Shephard, 2014; Moser and Hoffmann, 2015). Technologies to improve the safety of farm produce face several barriers to adoption. First, food safety is a hidden trait. Observation of many contaminants is possible using rapid tests, but costly relative to the value of farm produce. Inefficiencies in output markets characterized by multiple intermediaries exacerbate informational inefficiencies since information asymmetries arise at each transaction, preventing pass-through of incentives for food safety (Fafchamps et al., 2008).
Contamination with fungal toxins (mycotoxins) is a prominent food safety concern in tropical regions. Aflatoxin, a common mycotoxin in maize and groundnut, is is known to cause cancer and liver damage, and is suspected of inhibiting immune system function and contributing to childhood stunting (Gong et al., 2004; Strosnider et al., 2006; Turner et al., 2007; Hoffmann et al., 2015). Due to both ecological factors and poor post-harvest conditions, much of African produce is affected by aflatoxin, diminishing the region’s access to high-value export markets (Munasib and Roy, 2011). Food processing firms serving emerging domestic high-value markets are also increasingly testing for the contaminant.
Meru County in Kenya, the proposed site for this project, is known as a global aflatoxin hotspot. In 2010, considered by plant pathologists as an aflatoxin ‘outbreak’ year, 50% of maize samples collected at hammer mills contained in excess of 10 parts per billion (ppb), the maximum allowable level under Kenyan law; 10% were contaminated above 185 ppb, and the maximum level observed was over 4800 ppb, a level high enough to result in immediate sickness (data from Mutiga et al., 2014). Data collected from farmers’ stores in 2015 showed lower levels of contamination, but even in this “normal” year, 23% of samples exceeded the 10 ppb regulatory limit.
Two of the most effective tools available to combat aflatoxin in Kenya are adequate drying of maize, and the biocontrol product Aflasafe KE01. Mobile maize dryers with a capacity of 500 kg were tested by IFPRI in 2015 and found to reduce aflatoxin contamination in farmers’ stored maize 3 months later by 80% (Hoffmann and Jones, 2015). The dryer is now being offered, at limited scale, by local entrepreneurs with backstopping by the NGO ACDI-VOCA, at a price of 2,600 Kenyan shillings (approximately $26) per day. At typical starting moisture levels, the dryer can dry 2000 kg of maize per day. At this rate, the cost of drying is approximately 4.3% the value of maize.
Aflasafe is a biocontrol technology developed by scientists at the United States Department of Agriculture and adapted for Kenya by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Aflasafe contains native strains of Aspergillus that do not produce toxins and outcompete those that do. It is applied to the soil before flowering and protects crops throughout the growing cycle and storage period, with no impact on the overall level of fungal colonization or crop yields (Cotty et al., 2007). Aflatoxin biocontrol products have been successfully used on food crops in the United States for over 15 years, and in Nigeria for three years. The Kenyan variant, Aflasafe KE01, has been shown in farmer field trials to reduce aflatoxin contamination by between 93% and 99% (Bandyopadhyay et al., 2015). Aflasafe KE01 was approved by the Kenyan government for general use in June 2015, and domestic manufacturing is expected to begin in May of 2016, with an expected cost to farmers of $16 US per hectare.
For a farmer producing the median value of maize per acre in Meru, the cost of applying Aflasafe is approximately the same as that of using the mobile dryer. While Aflasafe is expected to be more effective at reducing aflatoxin than the dryer (leading to a 93-99% reduction compared with an 80% reduction) the disadvantage is that one must treat the entire maize field prior to harvest. If the harvest fails, or if a farmer generally has low yields, aflatoxin may not be a cost-effective choice. The most appropriate aflatoxin control technology for a given farmer will thus depend on his or her individual circumstances and risk tolerance.
IFPRI’s 2015 pilot of the mobile maize dryer showed that approximately 40% of farmers were willing to pay for the drying service after intensive educational efforts about the importance of avoiding aflatoxin. The proportion adopting the dryer was over 60% when market incentives for producing aflatoxin-safe grain were offered.
The proposed project would create such incentives by creating a direct market link between farmer groups in Meru and Kenya’s largest maize miller, Unga Ltd. A substantial gap exists between the spot market price of maize in the informal market, and that offered formal sector millers such as Unga. For example, on the same day in February 2015, Unga’s Eldoret plant was paying 2200 Kenyan Shillings (KSh) - approximately $22 US - for a 90 kg bag of maize, while the price at the local open air market was 1700 KSh. This premium exists as a result of the quality characteristics demanded by formal sector millers: maize must be dried at or below 13.5% moisture content; must conform to grading standards regarding the proportion of foreign matter, broken, damaged, and discolored kernels; and must contain total aflatoxins below the regulatory limit. Farmers are able to meet most of these criteria through adequate drying and removal of sub-standard grains and other particles. The exception is aflatoxin, which may be present without any visible sign of contamination. Unga has pledged to purchase maize that conforms to its quality and safety requirements from Meru farmers at a premium price.
By applying Aflasafe or using maize dryers, and storing maize in hermetic sacks, farmers in Meru would significantly reduce their risk of producing contaminated grain, reducing the exposure of their families to a dangerous fungal toxin. In addition, either investment would significantly increase farm incomes, based on available data on the price gap between the formal and informal sector. Funding has been secured for researcher time to evaluate alternative business models to scale up aflatoxin control technologies in Kenya. Additional funds from Amplify would cover the cost of the intervention itself.
 One example of industry self-regulation is the membership of 12 Kenyan maize processors in the voluntary Aflatoxin Proficiency Testing and Control for Africa program; see: http://apteca.tamu.edu/Default.aspx