MAYUGE, UGANDA — Namulondo Kekurina’s maize crops are thriving.
She’s on her second reaping this season and has already brought in more than her family, including the seven grandchildren she cares for, can consume.
To preserve the maize, she dries it in 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.
Namulondo says she didn’t know that this method produces aflatoxins, which are produced by fungi and are associated with an increased risk of liver cancer. Aflatoxin-producing fungi most often contaminate crops at harvest time and during storage.
What Namulondo does know is that she can’t afford a tarpaulin, a heavy, waterproof cloth that keeps the drying maize off the ground. The tarps cost 30,000 Ugandan shillings ($8), she says, and she’d need about 10 pieces to dry all of her maize.
Her problem is not unusual.
About 40% of the maize grown in Uganda contains aflatoxins at levels that exceed the accepted standards among East African Community countries, says Archileo Kaaya, a professor at Makerere University’s Food Technology, Nutrition and Bio-engineering Department who has researched aflatoxins for more than 20 years.
Contamination often starts in home gardens.
“It’s while on the ground that maize is contaminated by microorganisms [such as] bacteria, fungus and worms, which poison it,” Kaaya says.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
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 tons of maize from Uganda, worth about 180 billion Ugandan shillings ($48.7 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.
Uganda produces 4.8 million tons of maize per year, says Pausta Clessy Nuwagaba, programs officer for structured trading systems at the East African Grain Council. Other maize estimates that don’t consider the contributions of small-scale farmers place Uganda’s maize production closer to 2.75 million tons.
“We understand that many of the farmers are not aware of aflatoxin[s],” Nuwagaba says. “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 unstructured grain market.
“The market in Uganda isn’t structured in grades,” Nuwagaba says, adding that maize of all different quality levels and farm types comes together in the grain markets. “This no strategic action for prevention and control of aflatoxin[s] in Uganda.”
But a new grain bill is in the works, says Joshua Mutambi, commissioner of processing and marketing at the Ministry of Trade and Commerce. The new bill would enforce regulation of the grain industry, among other things.
“The aim is to add value to our grain to standards that make it safe for human consumption and trade,” he says.
But regulating grain markets won’t address the fact that many of Uganda’s maize producers can’t afford the supplies necessary to prevent aflatoxins from being produced.
Mugabi Sulayimani, a small-scale maize farmer, says he has always dried his maize on the ground. Using a tarpaulin is a luxury he can’t afford.
In a season, he harvests about 1,000 kilograms (2,204 pounds) of maize. For each kilogram, he gets between 300-700 shillings (8-18 cents).
“That is so little cash to pay for my children’s tuition, cater for their being and also save for a tarpaulin,” he says.
“I do maize growing on a small scale, harvesting about 1,000 to 1,200 kilograms (2,204 to 2,645 pounds) a season,” she says. “We eat and also sell off the surplus, but we don’t earn much from it.”
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ translated some interviews Luganda and Lusoga.