Uganda: Drying maize on the ground increases health risks and hurts exports (Global Press Journal)

| October 14, 2019

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Drying maize on the ground can have serious health consequences. That’s why experts recommend drying it on a tarpaulin. But in Uganda, farmers like Namulondo Kekurina can’t afford tarpaulins: Mrs. Kekurina would need 10 to dry all her maize. Drying maize on the ground increases the risk of contamination with microorganisms such as aflatoxin-producing fungi, and aflatoxin is associated with health risks such as cancer. It’s an economic issue too. About 40% of the maize grown in Uganda contains an excessive level of aflatoxins. Last year, Kenya rejected 600,000 tonnes of maize from Uganda because of unacceptably high levels of aflatoxins.

Namulondo Kekurina’s maize is thriving. She’s harvesting for a second time this season and has already brought in more than her family can consume, including the seven grandchildren she cares for. To preserve her maize, she dries it the traditional way by spreading it on the ground for four or five days.

But drying maize on the ground can have serious health consequences.

Mrs. Namulondo didn’t know that it can produce aflatoxins, substances that are produced by fungi and associated with an increased risk of liver cancer. Aflatoxin-producing fungi most often contaminate crops at harvest time and during storage.

What Mrs. Namulondo does know is that she can’t afford a tarpaulin—a heavy, waterproof cloth that keeps drying maize off the ground. The tarps cost 30,000 Ugandan shillings ($8 US) and she’d need about 10 of them to dry all her maize.

Archileo Kaaya is a professor at Makerere University’s Food Technology, Nutrition, and Bio-engineering Department who has researched aflatoxins for more than 20 years. He says that about 40% of the maize grown in Uganda contains aflatoxins at levels that exceed East African Community standards. He explains, “It’s while on the ground that maize is contaminated by microorganisms [such as] bacteria, fungus, and worms, which poison it.”

Maize is Uganda’s third-largest agricultural product, after plantains and cassava. It’s also a major export. But now, high levels of aflatoxins are jeopardizing that. Last October, Kenya rejected 600,000 tonnes of maize from Uganda, worth about 180 billion Ugandan shillings ($48.5 million), because it was contaminated by aflatoxins at 40 parts per billion, according to the East African Grain Council. The maximum acceptable level is 10 parts per billion.

Pausta Clessy Nuwagaba is the programs officer for structured trading systems at the East African Grain Council. He says, “We understand that many of the farmers are not aware of aflatoxin.… However, campaigns encouraging them to adopt new ways of drying maize have been ongoing for years.”

While training small-scale farmers could reduce the problem, the larger issue, he says, is the country’s grain market. Mr. Nuwagaba says that maize of all different levels of quality and from all types of farms come together in the grain markets.

But a new grain bill is in the works, says Joshua Mutambi, the commissioner of processing and marketing at the Ministry of Trade and Commerce. The new bill would, among other things, enforce regulation of the grain industry.

He says, “The aim is to add value to our grain to [meet] standards that make it safe for human consumption and trade.”

But regulating grain markets won’t address the fact that many of Uganda’s maize producers can’t afford the equipment necessary to prevent aflatoxin contamination.

Mugabi Sulayimani always dries his maize on the ground. A tarpaulin is a luxury he can’t afford. He harvests about 1,000 kilograms of maize per season. For each kilogram, he gets between 300-700 shillings ($0.08 to $0.19 US).

He says, “That is so little cash to pay for my children’s tuition, cater for their being, and also save for a tarpaulin.”

Mrs. Namulondo agrees, saying, “I grow maize on a small scale, harvesting about 1,000 to 1,200 kilograms a season.… We eat and also sell off the surplus, but we don’t earn much from it.”

This story was adapted from an article written by Nakisanze Segawa for Global Press Journal. The story was originally titled, ”Drying maize on the ground increases health risks and decreases exports in Uganda.” To read the full story, go to:

Photo credit: Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda