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Regaining ground for Malawi's groundnuts

Malawian groundnut exports ended in the 1970s because of high levels of aflatoxin contamination (© ICRISAT)
Malawian groundnut exports ended in the 1970s because of high levels of aflatoxin contamination

Grown in Malawi, and sold on the shelves of the UK's biggest supermarket chains, Liberation peanuts - the world's first Fairtrade peanuts - are a testament to the power of cooperation. Once a major global supplier of peanuts, or groundnuts, as the crop is known in much of Africa, Malawi lost its market in the 1970s because of high levels of aflatoxin contamination. In recent years, more stringent European limits on aflatoxins in grains and nuts have excluded growers more widely and cost the continent an estimated US$750 million annually in lost exports. But a wide-ranging effort by a farmers' organisation, the National Smallholder Farmers' Association of Malawi (NASFAM), in partnership with scientific and trade organisations, has challenged the trend and restored the country's status as a groundnut exporter.

Representing farmer cooperatives and associations across Malawi, NASFAM's size and resources have enabled it to achieve what smaller associations might not. Dyborn Chibonga, CEO of NASFAM, traces the revival of Malawi's groundnut exports to 2000 when, with support from the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), the Association obtained seed of a higher yielding, better quality, more flavoursome groundnut dubbed 'Chalimbana 2000' by traders, in reference to the traditional Chalimbana variety, which was the hallmark of the Malawi groundnut export trade in the 1970s. The new variety has since been adopted regionally by farmers in Zambia, Mozambique and Uganda, as well as Malawi.

Affordable testing

Aflatoxin contamination remained a major concern, however, not least because infection can occur at any stage from pre-harvest to storage, and detection methods commonly used in developed countries were too expensive, complex and time-consuming for most farmers to implement. However, with support from ICRISAT, NASFAM was able to set up a small laboratory for use of its members, where samples brought from farms could be tested for US$1 - much more affordable than the US$25 that tests had previously cost. The new system was based on a simple testing kit, also developed by ICRISAT, which could be used to test samples even from remote farms. This allowed contamination problems to be detected early and control strategies to be developed.

Drying groundnuts on bare soil can lead to contamination by aflatoxin-causing fungi (© Swathi Sridharan)
Drying groundnuts on bare soil can lead to contamination by aflatoxin-causing fungi
© Swathi Sridharan

Improved drying methods to achieve a moisture content of around eight per cent were a key strategy. Instead of stripping pods from the plant and drying them on the ground, which can easily lead to contamination by aflatoxin causing fungi, groundnuts were slow-dried in the field in ventilated stacks, which allow for air movement in the interior of the stack. Other methods included mechanical threshing for timely processing and storage of shelled nuts in breathable hessian sacks, piled on pallets to allow proper aeration. Sorting to remove rotten and shrivelled nuts was another strategy, also ensuring a consistent, high quality product.

Exports of groundnuts began in 2005, grown by a NASFAM-affiliated group in the west of Malawi, the Mchinji Area Smallholder Farmers Association (MASFA). Thanks to the testing and improved practices, the Mchinji Association has been able to consistently produce nuts that pass the aflatoxin regulations, with a contamination level of less than four parts per billion.

Following its success tackling aflatoxins at farm level, NASFAM has also been a key player in marketing the groundnuts. In 2007, the Association formed a partnership with Fairtrade organisation, Twin, plus other producer organisations in Africa and Latin America, to create Liberation Foods, which describes itself as 'the world's only farmer-owned Fairtrade nut company'. And in 2010, the Association expanded its role further, becoming a major partner in Afri Nut, a US$1 million processing business in Lilongwe. Thus, as a national body, the Association has had the resources and partners to make strategic investments at different points in the value chain, to the ultimate benefit of its member groups.

Premium groundnuts

Sacks of groundnuts are piled on pallets, to improve aeration (© Swathi Sridharan)
Sacks of groundnuts are piled on pallets, to improve aeration
© Swathi Sridharan

Selling through Liberation has enabled around 4,000 MASFA farmers to enter the international Fairtrade market, and to feel proud that their produce - in packs that feature a photo of one of their members - is being sold at a premium price to UK consumers. Community investments earned through the Fairtrade purchasing have already funded a guardian shelter for those supporting patients at Mchinji district hospital; a groundnut buying centre, to improve trading facilities and post-harvest handling, is now planned.

Whether in groundnuts or other crops, aflatoxin contamination is recognised to be a problem that affects all members of the value chain. Given that trade restrictions may be imposed equally on the guilty and the innocent when toxin is discovered, cooperation and a sense of joint responsibility are vital in detecting and responding to such cases, minimising the risks of contamination and protecting both consumer health and income creation throughout the value chain.

Date published: November 2012


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