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Building Bridges to Fight Aflatoxin, Africa’s Silent Killer

We will help African farmers battle aflatoxin contamination, a deadly and pervasive carcinogen, with an affordable testing and business kit.

Photo of Brian
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Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

Contamination from aflatoxin - a carcinogenic mold that forms in grains - is Africa’s silent killer and dirty secret. In developed countries, grains are routinely tested for aflatoxin contamination and entire shipments are destroyed if found to be above minimum standards. Prevalence data from Africa and Asia suggests that aflatoxin contamination in key staples, including maize, groundnuts and sorghum is widespread, especially at the village level, and is correlated with Africa’s high rates of liver cancer, childhood stunting, lower birth weights, and cognitive impairment. Why aren’t African consumers scared to death? Because awareness of aflatoxin contamination is largely limited to mid-sized food processors and buyers. Most small farmers throughout Sub-Saharan Africa have never heard of aflatoxin. Even if they have, they lack access to basic tools and training that could make a dramatic difference in food quality. Standards, testing protocols and mitigation methods available in developed countries are largely lacking at the rural level, and this is where CTI steps in. CTI aims to develop and implement aflatoxin testing and control services through its Food Technology Centers (FTC) being launched in rural communities in Central and Southern Malawi. These centers will provide farmers, especially women, access to labor-saving technologies for postharvest processing of peanuts, aflatoxin testing kits, crop drying services, and storage to enable them to detect and control contamination in their crops. We will link farmers to buyers and work with them to create consumer awareness and willingness to pay a slight premium for quality products that have been tested for aflatoxin. Our hope is to develop a commercial service model that, if successful, can be refined and progressively rolled out across Africa over time.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

We prefer to think of the communities and actors that we work with as partners, not beneficiaries, and treat them as equals in the development of our work together. Our concept will build bridges among four types of partners, who will benefit as follows: • Farmer groups, and the smallholder farming families they comprise, will benefit from a more lucrative market for their crops, lower post-harvest losses, and better health as they eliminate aflatoxin from their food supply. • Food processors/buyers will benefit from product differentiation and higher consumer demand for their products and a more stable supply of quality grains that will help grow their businesses. • Service Providers, particularly young people, will benefit from development of a commercially sustainable business model and profit from the resulting business. • Consumers will benefit from new knowledge of the dangers of aflatoxin in their food, a safer food supply, and better health.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

Our program builds on the successes and relationships of our current program in Malawi, which focuses on the smallholder farmer and the rural level. While there are larger postharvest processing facilities which aggregate in urban centers, they are not in the rural sector. By decentralizing food processing and providing business and marketing training at the rural level, the objective is to link buyers to farmers at the base and also strengthen capacity throughout the rural sector. A profit motive and sustainability will be built in from the beginning.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Prototype: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing the idea.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

Compatible Technology International draws on expertise from the multinational food processing community in the U.S. to develop and disseminate effective and profitable postharvest technology solutions for smallholder farmers, particularly women, in Africa.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

CTI has been working with farmers in Central Malawi since 2010 to develop a suite of labor-saving and profitable post-harvest processing technologies for groundnuts (peanuts). These crops have significant domestic and international market potential, but we have found that aflatoxin contamination is a principal barrier to smallholders accessing these lucrative markets as well as a threat to their health. We want to help these communities lead better, healthier lives.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

African grain production and markets are influenced by competition with large-scale producers in developed countries, who enjoy economies of scale that permit them to outcompete local farmers in African markets, despite having to ship their halfway around the world. Farms have been subdivided as generation after generation of farmers hand ever smaller parcels of land down to their children, further eroding individual farmers’ potential to achieve the economies of scale needed to maintain profitability. Climate change is altering whether patterns and introducing variability, volatility, and risk in cropping calendars, yields, and production. As a result of this diminishing scale of individual farms and climate unpredictability, the investments in post-harvest processing technologies, quality testing and storage required to access more lucrative market must be collective, scaled for affordably, and directly tied to market opportunities in order to be financially sustainable over time.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

CTI will work with farmer associations in Central and Southern Malawi that are successfully engaged in our current post-harvest program. Organized by the National Smallholder Farmer’s Association of Malawi (NASFAM), these associations are registered as independent entities under the Trustees Incorporated Act. They are affiliated to NASFAM Trust at Head Office which is more or less a coordinating entity for program planning and implementation. As part of the current program, CTI is establishing Food Technology Centers (FTCs) at two of these associations where farmers can rent labor saving production equipment, access training, and process their grain crops. Traders, domestic food processors, and NASFAM itself enter into purchase agreements with associations as specific market opportunities emerge. Associations and FTCs are an ideal testing ground for piloting an aflatoxin testing and mitigation service.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

The communities we work with in Malawi have great potential to improve their livelihoods and lives. They are hardworking, very organized and have a strong sense of faith and community. The agricultural service business that we are proposing to develop would be an excellent opportunity for young people, who might otherwise go off to the city for work. Malawi has a vibrant and growing food processing and exporting sector that can connect farmers with more lucrative markets.

Geographic Focus

We are targeting Central and Southern Malawi, where we can leverage our current FTC program.

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

We propose a 36 month timeline in order to have three full growing seasons over which we can prototype, implement, and refine the service model.

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No

Attachments (1)


Join the conversation:

Photo of Barrie Hebb

Brian, this is a very interesting concept. I was unaware of this issue which is now obviously linked to quality standards, testing with serious implications especially for small holder farmers in poorer communities. I am not sure if this is an issue in Tajikistan, where we have livelihoods projects aiming to boost productivity, livelihood security and incomes for the rural poor. Given the prevalence of nuts, grains etc. in this region, I will surely now pay more attention and find out what is done here - either to verify that this is not an issue, or how they mitigate the risk. Thank you for raising my awareness!

Photo of Tyler Goodwin

Hi Brian! Exciting to see your work to reduce aflatoxin, and look forward to following your progress from KE! I heard about some folks from BYU (Provo, USA) doing aflatoxin research in Malawi last year. Are you connected or affiliated with them by chance?

Most of the agricultural initiatives to mitigate aflatoxin we've encountered (e.g. Syngenta & USAID bio-control program for maize) seem to be limited by their product-focus (high cost and need to build distribution), so I love the pragmatism of your concept and it's service-focus.

The market-linkage side of the concept (helping farmers earn more through better, tested product) seems clear to me if customers are indeed willing to pay more for this and shipments are currently being rejected due to poor quality.

I'm less clear on how improving crop quality for groundnuts would make a significant impact on the health of smallholder families or local African consumers, unless groundnuts are the prime source of their aflatoxin exposure or your concept supports overall nutrition in other ways I'm missing. Is this the case?

A few other questions I'm curious about if you have the time!

- What type of aflatoxin testing kits are you using, and at what point(s) is the crop tested?
- Can you share more about your vision for the commercial service model?
- Can you share more about your vision for how the crop drying services will be provided?
- Can you share some of the user feedback from your prototypes?
- What led you to focus on groundnuts (e.g. rather than maize)?
- Are groundnuts used in animal feed in Malawi?

Photo of Brian

Hey Tyler, habari?

Thank you for these thoughtful comments and questions - I look forward to staying in touch as we progress. We are not affiliated with the BYU folks, but would love to get their contacts if you have them so that I can reach out and gain from their experience. We do think a service rather than a product focus is better here - we've found that sampling, follow up, and control methods are key. All of these point to a service approach. CTI has worked with ICRISAT to develop testing strips, but they are still rather artisanal and not ready for commercial sale. Indeed, there are other market-ready test strips in developed countries that may be better - we hope to test a few and work through importation/cost issues as appropriate. Honestly, we're prototyping a business model here, so I don't have much more to share. We want to leave ourselves open to adapting any- and everything to partners' needs. Our initial vision is that drying, PIC bagging and storage could either be mobile out to the user, so that they avoid transport costs, or at NASFAM hubs. We hope to see what works best through service prototyping under this grant. You're right, of course, that we'll want to get to maize too as that is the primary staple. We're starting with peanuts so that we can leverage work and funding under our current program. Animals in Malawi, as elsewhere, are often fed crop 'waste,' including rejected grains, but we don't have population level data on the practice or aflatoxin contamination in meat and milk. Indeed there are a great number of unknowns about the potential health impact here. Whether there are threshold or long-term exposure issues are questions beyond our scope, but doesn't it make sense that that curbing practices that introduce carcinogens into the food supply is a good thing? It is quite likely that widespread health impacts would require both time and scale to be measurable.
Thanks again for you comments and questions and I look forward to staying in touch as the process progresses.

Photo of Tyler Goodwin

Hi Brian,

Yes! My partner was the one who connected with them, so will see if I can dig up their contacts. (African food journal) recently published a special issue on aflatoxin that I think they were also published in -- and some great reads overall if you haven't seen them already.

Interesting to hear that CTI's strips are 'artisanal'. It seems that's also the state of the industry here -- as I've been tracking down information on current availability and practices, and been surprised at how nascent testing is when contamination is such headline news.

Sounds like you have loads of ideas on business model options to test! Business design is my specialty, so feel free to reach out if there's any way I can help advise or support your service prototyping plans.

Thought there was a DM feature here, but I can't locate it. Can reach me at tyler at if-ventures dot com or I think my other email displays in my profile.