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Mootles are a low-cost sensor-based solution to establish when foods have been dried "enough" to hinder microbial spoilage during storage.

Mootles are a low-cost sensor-based solution to establish when foods have been dried "enough" to hinder microbial spoilage during storage.

Photo of Isaiah Etemo Muchilwa

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Hi Vivian, this effort by IFPRI to avail small-scale farmers with technologies to mitigate fungal contaminants in foods is commendable. It is also nice that you correctly name climate as a key factor for pre-post harvest spoilage of foods, especially in the hot and humid equatorial tropics. All the major outbreaks of acute aflatoxicosis, with pandemic-scale fatalities that have put Kenya in the news globally, have occurred during El Niño years - a recurrent weather phenomenon associated with sea surface temperature anomalies in the equatorial pacific. Historically, El Niño in Kenya has been associated with intensification of the October-November-December rains, often extending to February and thereby coinciding with most of the maize harvest across the country. Achieving rapid and sufficient dehydration of foods is very difficult under these conditions and that is why I applaud your initiative to make artificial driers accessible to smallholder farmers. Here are a few insights to consider as you work to improve on this offering:
>Good interventions also require strategic (timely) application for efficacy. Availing drying facilities that are optimised only for "shelled" maize may not do enough to encourage early harvesting, as maize at physiological maturity still has to be pre-dried on cobs before shelling / threshing to limit kernel damage, and this can take months under foul weather - scaling up losses from rains, insects, fungi, birds, rodents and thieves <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggsJYF-1z90>. These spoilage agents are less active in the cooler regions of the world away from the equatorial tropics, making natural field dry-down of crops less risky and favouring the late deployment of shelled maize driers for combine-harvested crops. For smallholder farmers in the tropics who hand-harvest their maize, artificial cob-drying at physiological maturity is feasible and more strategic, and the challenge for mainstream engineering is just to develop appropriate technologies for this purpose, one of the goals of my own research.
>Co-occurrence of aflatoxins and fumonisins (both potential carcinogens) is common across Kenya. Although Aflasafe is showing promise as a mitigant against aflatoxins, we should take into account the fact that this intervention does not guarantee 100% efficacy since it relies on the cooperation of the same unpredictable skies that spoil foods, to avail sufficient precipitation at the critical time of application just before flowering (not flexible). In addition, there are several other known contaminants associated with fungi (more yet to be discovered) and taking out just one does not necessarily render mouldy foods safe to eat. Even though mycotoxins may present in foods that are not visibly contaminated, "mouldy" kernel counts feature prominently in national and international maize grading standards, regulations that will most likely dictate access to the premium markets that you are targeting.  Prevention is key and the ultimate goal should be to keep moulds off our foods. Strategic harvesting and drying can achieve this for us.
It will be nice to see this project succeed and sustain to impact on livelihoods across Kenya. 
All the best and kind regards

...Great response, thanks and all the best.

Hi Rebecca, thank you for this initiative to reduce aflatoxin contamination levels in maize, our staple food in Kenya. I like the fact that your proposed intervention is targeting local posho mills and I foresee some success given that these mills are used by many both in towns and rural villages. A few queries for you...
Do you have any preliminary indications of the cost of this intervention and time it takes to process say 1 kilo of grain? How do you intend to treat the significant portion of maize that is consumed whole in homes, without going through posho mills? Githeri, for example, is a popular meal comprising pre-boiled maize and dried beans, that is taken mainly for breakfast and lunch in many homes and constitutes many school feeding programmes across the country. Dried beans too have been associated with mycotoxins / aflatoxins and the challenge is, say we succeed in tackling the maize problem - what happens to the beans? Can your proposed solution be applied to dried beans too? Many still think that removing foreign objects and washing off soil (the main sources of fungal contaminants) from foods that have been stored for months in this condition make them safe to eat, as you will see in this video (link appended). Nobody is testing for fungal toxins and hence no motivation to control. Employing blowers to remove smaller (diseased and broken) kernels is an excellent strategy against aflatoxins, but why wait to implement this late at the posho mill, rather than early-before grains are bagged for storage, as a preventive measure?...just food for thought, otherwise great job!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpEX5v5ltdg

http://ijat-aatsea.com/pdf/v9_n1_13_January/14_IJAT_2013_9(1)_Embaby,%20E.M-%20Plant%20Pathology-must%20revised%20X.pdf