A farmer in Kitui has used a fine wire mesh to device a modest anti aflatoxin technology meant to preserve maize and grains for a longer period,and which is 90 percent more effective in preventing food spoilage in stored grains compared to ordinary chemical dusting. This comes as relief to farmers who have suffered under the menace even as aflatoxin control methods remain out of reach for many.
The contamination of the country's main staple with aflatoxin, a highly poisonous cancer-causing chemical produced by a fungus scientifically known as Aspergillus flavus, was a result of poor drying and storage of the grain following heavy rainfall near harvest time. Michael Makuthu came from Nzangathi location of Kitui central invented the technology in 2010 after a devastating brush with the mold when eight out the ten bags he had harvested were infested by the mold.
Kitui has traditionally been vulnerable to the aflatoxin menace and in the catastrophic 2009 season where the country lost close to 200 unsuspecting people after eating highly contaminated maize out of which over 60 came from Kitui area. “I had over six members of my family who were also hospitalized after they ate the contaminated maize, which was then a wake up call for me to act urgently,”said Michael.
According to Michael making the device is easy and the materials required are readily available locally. All he needs is a fine wire mesh, which is twisted into a cylindrical shape the length of a maize bag. When maize is harvested, it is dried and stored in the bags. The apparatus is then inserted in the middle of the bag to help in moisture dehydration, aeration and cooling.
The idea here is that the wires mesh tool will reduce the humidity in the grains which therefore curtails attack from aflatoxin causing molds. The device can preserve the grains for up to ten years. The eggs of weevils which cause aflatoxin cannot be hatched below temperatures of 22 degrees Celsius and the apparatus helps reduce the temperatures to even below 15 degrees celsius. “I looked around to see how best I could help farmers because we were still facing the same problem. We harvest, we store the maize poorly, we consume it and get sick, and the cycle continues. There had to be a way, and not just anyway, a simple way that we could use to contain this menace before it could consume our farmers,”said Makuthu.
And farmers aware of the benefits that such a modest technology offers are flocking Makuthu's house to purchase. The device goes for between Sh600 to Sh700 depending on the size of the maize bag. This is within reach of thousands of smallholder maize farmers who have decried the prohibitively high cost of conventional aflatoxin control devices in the market. A moisture meter for example that measures the grains moisture cost between Sh30,000 to Sh70,000.
Makuthu's device which was showcased for the first time at the first National Council for Science and Technology clinic last year has also received a nod from scientists who have hailed it as a more vibrant and sustainable technigue for aflatoxin control in stored grains which in turn scales up food security situation in the country. Makuthu is now looking to commercialize the device having received the go ahead from the National Council for Science and Technology.
Aflatoxin is a silent killer that causes liver cancer and suppresses the immune system. It also retards growth and development of children. People exposed to very high aflatoxin concentrations experience liver failure and rapid death.
Death from aflatoxin infection can occur within 48 hours. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that toxins like aflatoxin infect around a quarter of the world's crops every year, wasting one billion metric tons of food. Kenya is one of the world's hotspots for aflatoxin.