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Combating aflatoxin - a value chain approach

In Malawi, 60% of groundnuts are traded in informal markets (© Twin)
In Malawi, 60% of groundnuts are traded in informal markets
© Twin

Ensuring safe levels of aflatoxin for export has long been a big challenge in smallholder supply chains, where poor production and storage practices create various entry points for contamination. The toxin, caused by the Aspergillus flavus fungus, costs Africa around US$750 million in export losses to the EU each year. However, another, less reported cost to smallholders and their communities is that an estimated 4.5 billion people, many of them in developing countries, are exposed to the toxin in contaminated food. As a carcinogen, aflatoxin is responsible for 28% of liver cancers globally, and contributes to childhood stunting, TB and immune disorders such as HIV. The impacts on public health also affect livelihoods; long-term problems continue over generations and diminishing productive capacities undo valuable development progress.

"If we are determined to break the cycle of hunger and poverty so that countries can feed themselves and help their communities to thrive, then investment in food safety for local or export, informal and formal value chains is needed," says Andrew Emmott, a Senior Manager at Twin, a UK-based ethical trading organisation. To tackle aflatoxin contamination and secure more reliable access for smallholders in Malawi to value-added international markets, Twin has devised an approach that tackles critical control points - including drying, sorting and storage - to stop moulds developing, and has also established a groundnut processing plant.

Improving quality along the supply chain

In Malawi, 60 per cent of groundnuts are traded in informal markets, where a lack of regulation and low consumer awareness create a dangerous combination. When hunger and poverty prevail, food not fit for international markets will be sold and eaten. But breaking the destructive poverty trap in which aflatoxins thrive is complicated: with a contaminated crop, farmers can't simply trade their way out of the problem.

Women in Africa spend 4 billion hours hand shelling groundnuts each year (© Twin)
Women in Africa spend 4 billion hours hand shelling groundnuts each year
© Twin

For marginalised producers with low technical expertise and poor access to adequate infrastructure, there is no simple solution. In response, Twin and its partner the National Smallholders Association of Malawi (NASFAM) have been working to raise awareness - so that farmers understand how contamination is spread, and the threat posed to trade and health - and engage communities in improving farming practices. "From what we learnt we now know that aflatoxin is associated with poor pre- and post-harvesting practices," explains farmer Consolata Mkowa, after attending a training course. "I am working hard to ensure my one acre of groundnuts is planted at the right spacing, at the right time, is weed free, is harvested at the right time and is properly dried to reduce contamination."

To make it less likely that produce will be contaminated, Twin and NASFAM suggest a set of interventions, including transporting groundnuts in-shell to depots, storage and drying of groundnuts in their shells, mechanical shelling in controlled environments, and storage of shelled nuts in clean, natural fibre bags. One simple technology is mechanical hand shellers. It is estimated that women in Africa spend 4 billion hours hand shelling groundnuts each year. They tend to soak them in water to soften the shell and ease this painful and arduous task, but this increases the risk of aflatoxin contamination. Hand operated mechanical shellers not only remove the need to soak the groundnuts but also reduce the time spent shelling by ten times so that nuts can be delivered to market more quickly, cutting down the time groundnuts are stored, removing yet another point of contamination.

Market-driven solutions

Afri-Nut Ltd adds value to smallholder groundnut products (© Twin)
Afri-Nut Ltd adds value to smallholder groundnut products
© Twin

Twin, in partnership with national organisations, has set up a groundbreaking nut processing plant in Lilongwe, called Afri-Nut Ltd, to add value to smallholder nut products in-country. Rigorous safety procedures are in place and ongoing improvements in the Afri-Nut value chain aim to reduce the risk of aflatoxin contamination, including: pre- and post-processing aflatoxin testing; improvements in storage, including modern warehouses and buying centres; and sorting nuts at mechanised sorting tables under controlled conditions. This means that safe products can be sold to premium international markets, including leading supermarkets in the UK.

New product development is also underway to find safe market solutions for contaminated nuts. An exciting new product currently being developed is nut oil, a high demand product identified in Malawi's National Export Strategy as one solution to diversifying the economy away from tobacco dependence. Once the nuts have been pressed for oil, harmful toxins can be filtered out and the bi-product - groundnut cake - can also be safely processed for animal feed. This reduces financial losses and food waste, and creates value from a product which might otherwise be destroyed or filtered back into the human food chain.

Written by: Andy Stephens, Twin and Twin Trading

Date published: May 2013


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