Agricultural researchers plot against the aflatoxin menace

Kenyan trials have been launched of a biological control against the fungus that causes aflatoxin, infecting maize and groundnut crops post-harvest and making them inedible. In Nigeria, where the trials are advanced, the bio-pesticide has had up to a 99 per cent success rate in preventing the fungus.

Five trials have now been launched in Kenya at Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) Centres, including at KARI Kiboko.  KARI Director Dr. Ephraim A Mukisira said maize farmers will be able to get the new bio-pesticide by early 2013, if the field trials prove successful in the country.

According to Dr Ranajit Bandyopadhyay, a specialist with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), the Aflasafe bio-pesticide is sprayed on maize and ground nuts two to three weeks before flowering. That ensures it “takes out the sources of infection and stays in the grain,” said Dr. Ranajit.

On harvesting, even if maize is stored badly making it vulnerable to aflatoxin attack, the “good fungi” produced by the bio-control reduces the population of poison-producing strains of “bad guy” aflatoxin.

There is no need to re-apply the bio-control again on stored grains, as the protective traits remain after the crops have been sprayed in the fields.

For either maize or ground nuts, farmers will require 10kg of the new Aflasafe bio-pesticide per hectare. Initially, the Agriculture Ministry will offer the product to farmers for free, but farmers will later have to pay.

The bio-control has no poisonous effects on users and “no complex regime is needed to spray it”, said Dr Wilson Songa, the Agricultural Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture.

The test for success of the first local trial began in the middle of last year with maize samples flown to the US for tests under the supervision of KARI scientists. 

In Nigeria, where the bio-control has proved successful, it’s now in the process of being commercialized.

After the product is made available to farmers, Dr Ranajit tentatively estimates it will cost some $10 to $12 per hectare. In Kenya, the aim is to reduce the aflatoxin infection in grains by over 70 per cent, and increase crop value by at least 5 per cent, according to the IITA report. 

Aflatoxin has been widely reported in Eastern Province, and also in Western Kenya in the maize basket of Rift Valley. Currently, the Ministry of Agriculture is holding 160,000 90 kg bags of maize infested with Aflatoxin and awaiting disposal. 

However, some 70 per cent of local maize is informally traded at village level by subsistence farmers, making this anti-aflatoxin initiative particularly vital, said Steve Collins, Country Director of ACDI/VOCA - speaking in Nairobi during the launch of the Development and Commercialization of Biological Control of Aflatoxins Project in Nigeria and Kenya.

At subsistence level, farmers often sell their better grain and retain the poor grains for themselves, said Collins. This left farmers and their families consuming grains with a higher likelihood of being infected with aflatoxin, which causes liver disorders and death.

The 18 month bio-pesticide project, set to end in 2013, is being funded by Bill and Melinda Gates at a cost of $1.32m.  In Nigeria, where the project has been underway for the last 4 years, the number of incidences of aflatoxin has been slashed.

Written By James Karuga for African Laughter