The high prevalence of aflatoxins in maize and other staple foods in the EAC is the main obstacle to domestic and regional food trade a recent report has stated.
World Bank report ‘Boosting Africa’s Food Supply: Rethinking Aflatoxin Management for Improved Food Trade in East Africa’ is looking to shed light on ways to foster growth in the food security area in the region saying that the high prevalence of aflatoxins in maize and other staple foods in East Africa has become an important obstacle to domestic and regional food trade.
This is however not meant to water down all the valuable efforts that countries in East Africa have directed towards standardising upper limits on aflatoxins, because there has been progress in this area. It is the high costs and complexity of meeting these standards that has led to a large share of food being traded outside the regulatory framework thereby distancing poor producers from the market and undermining the prospects for regional value chain development. Especially as EAC countries look to recover from COVID-19 and build resilient food systems for the future, minimizing the cost of market transactions is more important than ever.
EAC Member States have made good progress in promulgating regionally harmonized standards for agriculture and food products that include mandatory upper limits of 10 parts per billion (ppb) for total aflatoxins and 5 ppb for aflatoxin B1 in cereal grains and flours (EAC 2013, 2017, 2017a). This is enshrined in the Aflatoxin Standards for Food Knowledge Platform 2015: Situational Analysis East Africa Region. While these levels address the human health risks of long–term chronic exposure, the standards give rise to technical challenges based on the average “pink sheet” price from 2014-2019. Pink sheets refer to a listing service for stocks that trade via over-the-counter (OTC).
In Uganda, for instance, the new regulations slapped on maize traders require exporters to submit a certificate of aflatoxin analysis from one of the nationally recognized labs for every consignment. These include Makerere University, Chemiphar Uganda Limited, Uganda National Bureau of Standards, Uganda Industrial Research Institute, and Directorate of Government Analytical laboratory. Now the costs involved in this process are inhibitive and therefore only large firms with huge financial muscles are able to comply.
Maize trade data in East Africa
Currently, agriculture accounts for a large share of intra–regional trade in the EAC and has important direct links to poor producers and poor consumers. Kenya is structurally deficit in its staple food, maize. It routinely imports several hundred thousand tons of maize annually much of which is grown by small farmers in neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda. According to customs data reported by World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS), from 2014 to 2019, Kenya imported an average of US$192.3 million of maize annually including US$17.5 million (9.1 percent) from EAC neighbours. At world prices, according to the World Bank analysis, this would translate to around 920,000 tons of global imports annually and 85,000 tons of imports from the EAC.
According to the Food Security and Nutrition Working Group – an organisation that monitors small-scale cross–border trade at 15 EAC border sites, Uganda exported almost 98,000 tons of maize to Kenya in 2019 and 115,000 tons to South Sudan through informal channels while Tanzania exported 114,000 tons of maize to Kenya and 20,0000 tons to Rwanda through these routes. Similarly, the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) has been monitoring small-scale cross–border trade at bus stations and 19 land and lake borders since 2005 and reports that 39 percent of Uganda’s total exports of maize, groundnuts, and sorghum is by small-scale traders who do not use formal regulatory channels.
But there’s hope…
There is however a glimmer of hope for the regional traders as new technologies may have the potential to transform EAC trade procedures and significantly reduce aflatoxin risks in domestic and regional food supply.
According to World Bank, lateral flow test strips can be used to measure aflatoxins without a laboratory setting and are known to produce very accurate results. These test strips have been around for many years but can now be machine-read using a smartphone or other mobile device with ICT connectivity thereby greatly improving precision and opening new potential for data to be transmitted to regulators and private participants in the supply chain.
Naturally, aflatoxins shine and all that is needed for a rough first assessment is to put a sample of grain in a box with an ultraviolet (UV) bulb and look for blue or green spots. UV boxes do not provide an accurate reading but can provide an immediate first indication of the presence of aflatoxins even in remote rural areas.
Deployed along the chain of custody, such technologies could help large and small traders make better-informed buying decisions and potentially be used for regulatory certification as part of a systems approach. A proven model for the use of quality seals in commercial trade comes from the US state of Texas where private silo operators and mills can be accredited to issue official certificates for commercial and regulatory purposes using approved test kits.
“The EAC could develop similar guidelines for accreditation of authorized users of approved kits including mobile-readable test strips as an acceptable basis for regional trade. By making regulatory controls more affordable and easier to access such a system could potentially make a significant contribution to East Africa regional integration and regional value chain development. It could also be an important step towards bringing small-scale cross border traders into compliance with the regulatory system thereby helping to create new jobs and opportunities for small and medium size enterprise (SME) development,” reads the analysis by World Bank.
On 17th August, 2018, a two–day regional forum to launch the East African Community (EAC) Policy Briefs on Aflatoxin Prevention and Control met and launched the nine sets of policy briefs on aflatoxin and underscored that they contain key recommendations on strategic policy action and interventions required to mitigate impacts and effects of aflatoxin along the food and feed value chains.
According to Hamadi Boga, Principal Secretary in the State Department of Agriculture Research, Ministry of Agriculture, Kenya, approximately 40% of food commodities in local markets exceed allowable levels of aflatoxins in foods.
“Africa loses up to US$670 million annually from exports due to aflatoxin contamination. It is commendable that the EAC Secretariat is prioritizing aflatoxin prevention and control as one of its flagship projects in the region,” he said.