Published on The Trade Post

Rethinking aflatoxin management in East Africa could boost regional food trade

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Photo: Simon Allen/ Pixabay

The high incidence of aflatoxins—cancer-causing substances produced by certain types of mold in maize (corn) and other staples—is a big obstacle to domestic and regional food trade in East Africa.  Current approaches to managing these contaminants based on laboratory tests and border controls have met with limited success.  

Lateral flow detection (LFD) devices for aflatoxins are quick and cheap to use and have been around for many years. But without machine reading, these tests have not been precise enough for regulators, who have relied instead on laboratory-based analysis for product certification. Now, new technological innovation allows LFD test strips to be machine-read with great precision using a smartphone or other mobile device—greatly improving reliability, traceability, and accessibility of aflatoxin analysis.  

The basic process is straightforward. A sample of the crop is exposed to a test strip treated with antibodies and reagents. If contaminants are present, reagents dye the strip. Such tests cost about $ 5-6 and can be done anywhere in about 15 minutes, compared with $ 70 or more for a traditional laboratory test (excluding the time and cost of transporting the sample to a faraway lab).  

Other less sophisticated and even cheaper tools that utilize the natural fluorescence of aflatoxins for immediate visual inspection are available that could improve buying decisions and other aspects of risk management. If deployed systematically along the chain of custody in domestic and regional markets, use of these technologies could be a practical way to streamline regulatory certification and transform the approach used in providing confidence  to consumers that staple foods moving in trade in the East African Community (EAC) are safe.  


More accessible analysis, more access to markets 

Current regulatory systems extract a high cost and do not serve the needs of small traders or small farmers very well. In Uganda, for example, new rules require exporters to submit a certificate of aflatoxin analysis from one of the three nationally recognized labs for every consignment. Only large firms have the resources to comply. Similarly, at the consumer-end of the value chain, only large industrial mills can afford laboratory tests required by regulators. Meanwhile, smaller traders and other enterprises are forced to navigate around the regulatory system. These conditions leave EAC countries with little effective control over aflatoxins and deprive small farmers and traders of the potential to earn higher incomes. 

Systematic use of newer technologies in a way that both traders and regulators have a role to make analysis cheaper, quicker, and more accessible could be of significant benefit to upstream stages of the supply chain —where improvement is most critical. Sharing responsibility for food safety between regulators and private sector could even be a route to the use of national quality seals on bulk staples that would make identification of conformity simple. EAC countries have made great progress with the harmonization of regional standards and mutual recognition of each other’s national quality marks for manufactured goods and processed foods moving in trade, but these systems do not yet extend to cereal grains or other bulk staples.  

A proven model for the use of quality seals in commodity trade comes from the state of Texas, in the United States, where private silo operators and mills can be accredited to issue official certificates of analysis using LFD devices and other 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. To ensure quality, regulatory officials would conduct unannounced spot checks to review records and test proficiency. 

Combined with recordkeeping and buying from sellers known to use good management practices, such a system is likely to be more effective than the current regulatory approach. This could encourage small traders and enterprises into compliance with regulatory requirements, helping improve rural incomes and create jobs and opportunities for regional trade and value chain development.  

While the concept is promising, unanswered questions remain. To prove the hypothesis, a detailed project proposal could be developed by EAC governments and private sector to put performance-based management systems to test in real trade situations, as indicated by our recent report Innovations in Food Trade: Rethinking Aflatoxin Management in East Africa. This would reveal whether such a system truly results in safer food trade and whether small farmers and traders see enough benefit to drive participation. If validated, this concept would provide a useful framework for World Bank and other donor support to regional food trade and regional integration in Africa and far beyond.  

Financial support for the analysis that culminated with the report was provided by the Umbrella Facility for Trade Trust Fund with contributions from the Governments of the United Kingdom (DFID), Sweden (Sida), Norway (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), the Netherlands (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), and Switzerland (SECO). 


Shane Sela

Senior Trade Facilitation Specialist

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