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Rwanda Fellow

Benjamin Byinshi

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We can eradicate aflatoxins by paying closer attention to quality control

Henry Rugira, a farmer with Subiza Cooperative, has just recovered from losses arising from produce rejection. He was unable to sell his cereals because they had aflatoxins, which are poisonous substances that affect the quality of grains, leading to harvest losses. Food crops like cereals and legumes are often prone to the aflatoxin menace which threatens the health of people and livestock.

For years, the focus of Rugira and his peers had been on producing larger volumes of grains that he later sold to local millers and other markets. However, his earnings gradually fell as buyers raised concerns over quality, rejecting a huge chunk of his produce. Turning to the informal market did not help. Returns could not pay for cost of productions.

I met Mr. Rugira through my routine work at Aflakiosk, a lab whose work involves improving the quality of grains and flour through rigorous testing. We measure ten quality parameters used to determine grade including quantity aflatoxin tests. Rugira’s challenges reflect those experienced by several maize aggregators and traders in the country who have been contending with limited market incentives to manage quality. This is further exacerbated by a lack of accessible, affordable, and independent means to measure quality.

An analysis of maize available on the markets (local and imports) done by Aflakiosk revealed that only 5 per cent of maize tested was grade 1, meaning there are significant quality control challenges present in the value chain. At least 27 per cent of maize flour sampled had aflatoxin levels above 10ppb. This is considered unsafe for human consumption, while 33 per cent of samples taken from animal feed products had aflatoxin levels above 20ppb defined as unsafe for animal consumption.

The above data point to a need for interventions to ensure that aflatoxin contamination doesn’t continue to rob Rwandan farmers of a chance to tap into growing markets.

For many years, actors in the grain value chain, like in other agriculture sub-sectors in Rwanda, have put more focus on boosting the quantity of their produce to meet the ever-growing food demand. Quality has remained an afterthought.

Benjamin Byinshi

The lack of accurate data on quality means traders are routinely rejected from high-value markets so they resort to selling to informal markets. By most accounts, larger processors, including premium buyers, reject up to 90 per cent of all locally sourced maize. It is not promising for local farmers who joined the trade to leverage prospects offered by grain farming and trade, and in particular maize, a major staple crop in high demand by markets all across Africa.

There is need for actors to collectively pay attention to problem areas in the grain value chain. These include poor harvesting and post-harvest handling practices which result in high incidences of rotten and immature grain, and high levels of moisture content, among others. In particular, there is need for actors to work together to increase farmers’ awareness, extend facilities to improve conditions of produce storage and post-harvest handling practices, above and beyond testing services.

With growing attention towards agribusiness, farmers have had to think and act with food safety in consideration. For instance, Rugira had to learn how to properly dry and store his maize produce, in addition to testing regularly to ensure he meets standards required by the market. The work is as demanding as the actual production processes.

But its rewards are handsome. He experiences fewer rejections of his produce and has now started attracting premium prices. This has helped to boost his income and increase the quality of his life. This is more so in light of liberalisation of trade regionally and continentally with the ongoing enforcement of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). He stands to make much more once he taps into the international market and supplies aflatoxin-free maize. Quality is a prerequisite for exports.

We must, however, look beyond trade because a healthy food system cannot exist in the presence of aflatoxin contamination.

By Benjamin Byinshi, Rwanda Food Fellow