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Two pilot projects launched in Rwanda to tackle aflatoxins in crops and grains

In order to help farmers and grain traders reduce the prevalence of aflatoxins in crops and grains in Rwanda, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), the International Finance Corporation (IFC), Kigali-based agriculture start-up AflaSight and research firm Vanguard Economics have launched two pilot projects aimed at improving maize quality in the country

Aflatoxin, produced by the fungus Aspergillus, thrives in a variety of crops and grains. Often consumed mistakenly in maize flours or maize-fed animal products, aflatoxin is linked to the suppression of the immune system, childhood malnutrition and is lethal in high doses. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that more than 500 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are exposed to aflatoxin’s serious long-term health effects.

In Rwanda, agro-processors struggle to source locally grown, high-quality maize that is not contaminated and rely mostly on imports. Contaminated maize, meanwhile, is prevalent in the informal market. The two pilots being launched by WFP, IFC and partners will help combat this problem.

For the first pilot, IFC is introducing two mobile grain testing facilities which will move between 10 major grain trading hubs across Rwanda. Implemented by Vanguard Economics, these ‘AflaKiosks’ will provide free grain testing services which will allow traders and farmers to determine the quality of their grain before selling it, thus providing farmers with access to more markets and better prices for their uncontaminated maize. The Aflakiosk pilot is supported by the Private Sector Window of the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP).

The second pilot involves testing ground-breaking sorting machinery that can detect and sort aflatoxin-infected maize. WFP’s Innovation Accelerator is supporting Kigali-based AflaSight to pilot the machinery — the first of its kind in Africa. Trials of the machine found that this process reduced aflatoxins by up to 90%, with only 5% volume loss, and was able to process up to 20 metric tonnes of maize per hour.

“The aim of this pilot is to support solving the issue of aflatoxin in maize – both in Rwanda and Africa more broadly.  The goal is for people to consume less contaminated food and establish the quality link for smallholder farmers – connecting them with premium buyers.  This would enhance smallholder farmers’ incomes, livelihoods, and food security,” said WFP’s country director for Rwanda, Edith Heines.

“Through this collaboration with IFC and WFP and our other partners, we can help unlock the value of Rwanda’s high-quality grain market, generating more income for smallholder farmers and increasing Rwanda’s ability to source needed grains locally,” said Amena Arif, IFC’s country manager for Rwanda.

High humidity levels coupled with a lack of mechanical, post-harvest practices among smallholder farmers in Rwanda and Eastern Africa increases the likelihood of aflatoxin. It is invisible to the human eye, making it difficult for farmers to prevent, and once present, is untreatable. Increasing the availability of high-quality grain is expected to help improve market reliability, reduce costly imports, and incentivize greater investments into the agricultural value chain.  

The two technologies being introduced through the pilots will be placed close to large maize trading markets throughout Rwanda. AflaSight will also offer complementary services such as aflatoxin testing, drying, and maize sorting which will increase overall maize quality and help connect farmers and traders to large, formal grain buyers. Both pilots are planned for an initial six months, during which evaluations will be carried out to identify areas for improvement and possible expansion in the country.