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. While East African Community (EAC) Member States have made good progress in adopting regionally harmonized standards that include limits on aflatoxins, the high cost and complexity of meeting these standards has led to a large share of food being traded outside the regulatory system. This has further distanced poor producers from the market and undermined the prospects for regional value chain development. Especially as countries in the EAC 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.
The need for aflatoxin management begins at the farm level where fundamental challenges with smallholder agriculture make crops highly susceptible to contamination. Simple improvements to mitigate aflatoxins areas are possible but add to costs; so, can be difficult for poor farmers and traders to justify without adequate incentives. As awareness of aflatoxins grows in the EAC, many farmers are adopting improved practices on crops saved for family consumption but not for market sale.
New technologies may have the potential to transform the incentives for upgrading significantly reduce aflatoxin risks in domestic and regional trade. Lateral flow test kits can be used to measure aflatoxins without a laboratory setting and are known to produce very accurate results. 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 reliability and precision.
Other low-cost methods have also benefited from technical innovation. Aflatoxins naturally fluoresce and all that is needed for a rough first assessment is a to put a sample in a box with a dark light bulb. Compared with moisture meters that only check for one condition that can give rise to aflatoxins but cannot tell if a crop was dried on the ground where aflatoxin exposure often occurs, UV analysis is likely to provide a much better direct way of screening for actual contamination.
Deployed along the chain of custody, these 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. With only modest investment and training, village offtakers, rural aggregators and warehouse managers could use the technologies to make significantly cheaper assessment of compliance and send market signals upstream to producers. From a regulatory perspective, these systems could be a practical route to the use of national quality seals in regional trade of food staples as an alternative to shipment by shipment checks.