Tony Sikpa: Commercializing yam in Ghana

Anthony Sikpa is the president of the Federation of the Associations of Ghanaian Exporters (FAGE). His group includes producers, exporters, and farmers. The federation currently has 13 associations with up to a couple of hundred members each. He also works with people in the horticulture sector producing vegetables, papaya, pineapple, and yam. He has been involved in organizing the group and doing advocacy work as president. He is an exporter of commodities such as cotton seed, cashew, coffee—both processed and raw materials, and other products.

How did you get involved in yam development?

Yam has been of interest to us and Ghana has been exporting yam for many years. So when the government approached IITA and ITC to help them develop a sector strategy for yam, it was interesting. Initially I was not involved because I did not handle yam but the association members asked me to lead them from the private sector angle. So I worked together with Dr Antonio Lopez (IITA) and Nelson (ITC), and we designed a participatory approach in crafting the strategy and in implementing and evaluating the whole process. This meant getting everybody in on one house: farmers, researchers, policy makers, exporters, traders, and financiers, under one roof. We talked, addressed issues, and came out with six broad objectives; how to improve the planting material, how the research and private sector will support the crop, how to help yam farmers in producing products using improved technologies, and how to market yam? Because we can’t just take anything into the market, we introduced ‘quality certification’ along the way to test the product.

The exercise was very useful. For the first time the misconceptions along the value chain were addressed. A farmer had the opportunity to ask scientists “why don’t you produce this type of material for me?” The approach really addressed the need of each person in the room.

For me, it helped to tell the public sector to create an environment for the private sector to lead and work with them.

Where are we going with the strategy?
This strategy is very important. The document provides a future road map, priorities and areas for investment/resource allocation, including milestones to assess the progress. The beauty of the strategy which makes me happy is that it is not dependent on one person to make it work. The farmers can go to the researchers to get the varieties. Fortunately we have IITA also to approach for new varieties. The exporter now clearly knows that he has work from the market; what the market requires and its standard. So he should prepare himself for the market.

We have used the strategy to position yam as an input for the industry. We should not just see yam as a food for the table. Yam can be used for different types of products including wine, in pharmaceuticals, etc. These are the ways we want to project yam so that we create a bigger demand for yam, and researchers would have to produce different varieties to suit the different needs of people. We will then be making yam as an industrial crop and create a bigger demand for it.

How are you involved with YIIFSWA?

I took advantage of the YIIFSWA meeting in Kumasi to go and tell them what we are doing in the yam sector and to also get their support for what we are doing. Maybe some of the products such as the new seeds and technology that would come out of the project could be made available to us in executing our strategy. I also told them about the gap that I saw: the emphasis on seed production was too much. We need to go beyond that into processes, coming out with new varieties for different uses. That is where they thought I could be useful and they invited me to join the technical advisory for the first time.

What are the lessons for other countries in Ghana’s experience of developing a yam sector strategy?

Others can learn from us. You cannot go into export without knowing which market you want. The export market has different strings; you need to look at the size of the market and use that to determine your production methods and even the varieties you want to produce. The variety that is in big demand is Pona. It has a very short shelf life and is delicate. You have to put all this into consideration when transporting it. You must package it well. The researchers need to take their time to study this. This project would help us to collaborate with, for example, our Nigerian brothers for us to be able to show them a few things we are doing that they can do. We know the way we use yam is different from the way they use yam. If they want to export yam, they need to go for smaller sizes for easy packaging because we measure in weight and not in hip or sizes.

What are the challenges in commercialization of yam?

The major challenge is in numbers and regularity. If you look at the trend in marketing now, in supermarkets they don’t want to buy small quantities because the supermarket has a chain, so you need to produce the volume required. If you can do this, you won’t have problem.

Aggregation. For instance you have so many farmers producing yam, you need someone to aggregate and make sure the quality is the same. The supermarket would not buy from you again if you get it wrong because they have a responsibility to their consumers to assure their safety. I will keep on saying certification. You cannot put any product in the European market without certification. They would look for international certification like the rainforest alliance as this would give them access to the international market. Another thing is transportation. You need to transport your product directly because if you don’t it will get cooked.

What is your vision for yam in Africa?

My vision for yam is to put it where potato is. Potato is everywhere. When people bring yam to town and package it into yam flour, then we’ll have done what this project is set out to do.

Would you have any advice to young farmers?

The young farmers should be happy and should grasp this opportunity of coming into agriculture now. It is a new learning. They should not be afraid of scientists; they should go to them with trust and patience.

Effective commercial products for farmers

Martin Jemo, m.jemo@cgiar.org, Cargele Masso, Moses Thuita, and Bernard Vanlauwe

Farmer screening soybean varieties in Kabamba, DRC. Photo by IITA
Farmer screening soybean varieties in Kabamba, DRC. Photo by IITA

Background and issues
More and more commercial products, such as biofertilizers, biopesticides, and chemical agro-inputs, are being sold to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). However, their quality and efficacy, especially for the microbiological products, are not properly evaluated before they are commercialized, because regulations are lacking or inadequate. There is a crucial need to implement appropriate regulatory mechanisms.

When microbiological products are used as directed, they are generally more environmentally friendly than synthetic fertilizers. Also, they mainly improve soil fertility by either biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) (rhizobium inoculants) or by increasing the availability or uptake of plant nutrients already in the soil (e.g., phosphorus- solubilizing Pseudomonas putida). Unlike microbiological products, synthetic fertilizers N and P chemical fertilizers) are sometimes associated with nutrient loss to the environment causing greenhouse gas emissions or eutrophication. Hence, one of benefits of using microbiological products in integrated soil fertility management (ISFM) is to preserve the natural resource from degradation, while sustaining adequate crop production.

The goal of the Commercial Products (COMPRO-II) project is therefore to improve crop yields, improve food security, and minimize the negative impacts of bad or inadequate agricultural practices on the environment.

Figure 1. Screening framework of commercial products in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria under COMPRO-I.
Figure 1. Screening framework of commercial products in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria under COMPRO-I.

The project is built on public-private partnerships to develop effective laws and regulations for biofertilizers and other agro-inputs in SSA. It is expected that the large-scale impact of this project will be a significant reduction of inefficacious agro-inputs in the marketplace, resulting in improved crop yields.

Product screening
Products evaluated under the COMPRO project are grouped into three categories: I: rhizobium inoculants, II: other microbial inoculants, and III: non-microbiological products. However, COMPRO-II mainly focuses on categories I and II.

The product evaluation has three key steps: laboratory/greenhouse testing, field testing, and the application of appropriate ISFM (Fig. 1). An additional step consists of the scaling up of the most  promising products retained after the three key steps.

Overview of COMPRO-I results
Over 100 commercial products from the three categories were evaluated under field conditions in Kenya, Nigeria, and Ethiopia from 2009 to 2011 in the first phase of the project (COMPRO-I). A significant economic benefit to farmers was found for only a few products (Table 1). On average, the benefit–cost ratio (BCR) for rhizobium inoculants in soybean was found to be US$4.1/dollar and maize seeds coated with plant nutrients resulted in a BCR of $4.6/ dollar. A BCR of 2.5 is considered satisfactory for the adoption of the technology. The photo below also shows a significant growth improvement for faba bean following treatment with a rhizobium inoculant.

Table 1. Yield increase and benefit-cost ratio of selected products evaluated under various field conditions in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria.
Table 1. Yield increase and benefit-cost ratio of selected products evaluated under various field conditions in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria.

Analytical tools
A better understanding of the fate and dynamics of the strains in microbiological products after their application to the soil requires adequate analytical tools. In COMPRO-I molecular tools to detect the Mitochondrial Large Subunit (mtLSU) DNA of the isolate Glomus intraradices in commercial products (e.g., Rhizatech) was developed (Fig. 2). The yield increase following the application of Rhizatech was associated with faster root colonization by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) as determined by the mtLSU DNA tool.

COMPRO-II is further investigating the information provided by a certain region of AMF DNA (mtLSU) and the use of Real Time PCR approach to discriminate different species and isolates of AMF. For example, such tools will be used to determine factors that control BNF in cowpea, a crucial food crop, to develop appropriate inoculants for the benefit of smallholder farmers in Africa.

Figure 2. Electrophoresis gel showing fragments amplified with “INTRA” primers targeting ribosomal DNA of <em/>Glomus intraradices.
Figure 2. Electrophoresis gel showing fragments amplified with “INTRA” primers targeting ribosomal DNA of Glomus intraradices.

Future plans
Based on the economic analysis, a relatively low percentage of the commercial products evaluated under COMPRO-I showed a significant benefit to smallholder farmers. Hence, there is a need to implement adequate regulations to prevent the proliferation of inefficacious products in the marketplace and also to disseminate the most promising products by increasing farmers’ awareness about them. Such a goal can be reached only when adequate resources are available. COMPRO-II intends to address those issues based on the lessons learned from COMPRO-I. Scaling-up of efficacious microbiological products will not only contribute to improved crop yields, increased food security, and reduced rural poverty, but will also, when used in adequate ISFM, contribute to preventing agricultural land degradation caused by a lack of agricultural inputs or the heavy application of chemical fertilizers.

A farmer shows inputs used to get the healthy maize crop. Photo by FIPS
A farmer shows inputs used to get the healthy maize crop. Photo by FIPS

Inadequate crop production systems generally result in degraded agroecosystems and reduced crop yields, and therefore have negative impacts on NRM. Biofertilizers are considered environmentally friendly and, when properly used, contribute to improved soil fertility (e.g., BNF and phosphorus availability), and preserve natural resources. However, in SSA, many smallholder farmers are not familiar with those products, while regulations are virtually non-existent in many countries. The COMPRO project intends to address those gaps by: (1) screening commercial products including biofertilizers through a stringent scientific scrutiny, (2) communicating information on, and disseminating products proven best or promising, and promoting ISFM, (3) developing adequate regulations to ensure the safety, efficacy, and quality of commercial products, and (4) building the capacity of countries in SSA to implement and enforce such regulations.

Ensuring good quality commercial products

The ‘Institutionalization of quality assurance mechanism and dissemination of top quality commercial products to increase crop yields and improve food security of smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa,’ or Commercial Products (COMPRO-II) project, was launched this year in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, this project aims to institutionalize quality assurance mechanisms and facilitate the rapid dissemination of top quality commercial products to increase yields and improve the food security of smallholder farmers in the region.

This will be done by raising awareness among over two million smallholder farmers on effective and profitable commercial products by 2016 through public-private partnership.

COMPRO II will:
1.transit technologies (e.g., Rhizobium inoculants for legumes, mycorrhizal inoculants for banana, and seed coating for maize) that enhance yields by 15–30% identified in COMPRO I into Ghana, Tanzania, and Uganda,
2.institutionalize regulatory and quality control processes,
3.disseminate effective products through public-private partnerships,
4.develop communication tools, and
5.strengthen human capacity.

Partners include the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa – Soil Health Program (AGRA), Farm Input Promotions (FIPS), the Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Research Area of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (TSBF-CIAT), the Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International (CABI), and universities, national research organizations, extension organizations, and quality control entities in the different target countries.

Towards a healthy banana TC industry

Thomas Dubois, t.dubois@cgiar.org

Tissue culture banana
Banana in smallholder farmer systems is traditionally propagated by means of suckers. These contain soil-borne pests and diseases, and by using them, farmers unknowingly distribute and perpetuate pest and disease problems.

Plants produced by tissue culture (TC), because they are produced axenically in the laboratory, are material that is free from pests and diseases with the exception of fastidious bacteria and viruses.

Young tissue culture plantation in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by T. Dubois, IITA.
Young tissue culture plantation in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by T. Dubois, IITA.

There are many added benefits to using TC plants: (1) they are more vigorous, allowing for faster and superior yields; (2) more uniform, allowing for better marketing; and (3) can be produced in huge quantities in short periods of time, allowing for faster and better distribution of existing and new cultivars, including genetically modified banana. In other words, the TC technology can help banana farmers to make the transition from subsistence to income generation.

However, TC plantlets are relatively fragile and require appropriate management practices to fully harness their potential, especially during the initial growth stages shortly after being transplanted to the field. In East Africa, TC plantlets are often planted in fields burdened with biotic pest pressures and abiotic constraints.

A SWOT analysis
The importance of the private sector
The adoption of TC technology is still relatively low in East Africa. In Kenya, coverage of TC banana is estimated at 5–7% of the total banana acreage; adoption rates are significantly lower in countries such as Uganda, Burundi, and Tanzania, although reliable data do not exist.

Cumulative yield (t/ha/cycle) of a plantation derived from tissue culture (orange bars) compared to one derived from conventional planting material (blue bars), over 5 cropping cycles under two management regimes (low input and high input). Every little block represents one crop cycle. Data based on 1,600 plants total.
Cumulative yield (t/ha/cycle) of a plantation derived from tissue culture (orange bars) compared to one derived from conventional planting material (blue bars), over 5 cropping cycles under two management regimes (low input and high input). Every little block represents one crop cycle. Data based on 1,600 plants total.

In East Africa, the technology is booming under the impetus from the private sector. At least 10 commercial private laboratories have sprung up in the last decade in Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Collectively, they produce at least 2 million plants/year, although exact numbers seem to fluctuate widely and are hard to come by. Most of these companies manage the entire production chain, from sourcing the mother plants to weaning the TC plantlets. Despite the steep entry barrier, the TC business is very lucrative for the entrepreneur who engages in plantlet production. In some countries, universities and research organizations are also involved in the commercial production of TC banana.

Lack of quality standards and virus indexing
One of the biggest dangers for sustainable commercial production of TC plants is the lack of several essentials: (1) standards for quality management during the production process, (2) plant health certification, and (3) regulatory procedures. Such conditions are especially important to avoid spread of viruses, which are easily transmitted through TC plantlets.

For instance, Banana bunchy top virus (BBTV) is on the list of the 100 most dangerous invasive species worldwide. It is widely distributed in Central Africa and also in Burundi and Rwanda in East Africa, yet implementation of virus indexing schemes is largely absent in East Africa. It is important to put in place standard procedures for ensuring the production and distribution of high-quality, virus-free planting material, and to establish independent agencies that set and implement standards and improve the skills of personnel. In East Africa, certification schemes need to be regionally harmonized, especially with the transnational movement of plants between the countries, so that there is no weak link in the region.

Unregulation—a potential danger to the spread of diseases
At present, the commercial production of TC banana plantlets is largely unregulated. Not only are TC banana plantlets being moved in very large quantities across borders; uncertified mother material is also crossing borders. This practice is potentially risky, and could perpetuate infected sources and cause new outbreaks of disease.

In the ideal situation, there need to be certification standards for the quality and health of TC plants and the monitoring of TC producer operations. These are largely ignored because of poor awareness, and the lack of capacity and regulations required for the implementation of such standards. To transform the system, governments and/or the TC industry could consider common facilities to implement certification schemes. For instance, an accredited governmental or independent virus indexing laboratory, established as a commercial service for TC operators, would leverage costs and improve TC standards.

Another important requirement for TC producers is sustainable access to virus-free and true-to-type mother plants and this is currently lacking. The establishment of certified mother plant gardens as a common resource, either by governmental agencies or a consortium of commercial TC producers, would provide this essential requirement.

test-tubes-to-farms

Contrary to a general perception, especially among donors, it is not merely the standards themselves that are a constraint, but also a lack of knowledge on how procedures are actually implemented along the value chain, through certification schemes. The equipment for virus indexing has become relatively cheap and technical skills are quite easily acquired. Their costs can be offset, e.g., through a service-based fee to private sector stakeholders.

Also, emphasis could equally be placed on certifying general operational procedures in a private TC laboratory. Currently, the quality of TC plantlets varies significantly, and several producers are struggling with off-types and accidental mixtures of varieties that become apparent only after being planted in the field, resulting in negative perceptions about TC.

Certification schemes need to be implemented in such a way that they do not become burdensome to producers or create bureaucratic barriers. Several quality certification schemes used for clonal crops, including banana, from other regions can be considered to develop an appropriate scheme for East Africa. Ultimately, it is not only the commercial sector that should self-regulate; governmental bodies need to take responsibility.

Nurseries
Nurseries for TC plants are essential, as they act as a distribution hub connecting producers to the farmers. They also act as focus centers for farmers and farmers’ groups, and are therefore an easily approachable venue for training and other interventions. The survey by IITA and University of Hohenheim of all TC nurseries in Burundi, Kenya, and Uganda, found that nurseries in East Africa face an array of problems. Relationships between producers and nurseries, especially those related to timing, quality, and quantity of plantlet supply, are often suboptimal.

At the nursery level, there are three main operational issues: access to water, credit, and the transport of plantlets. The location of the nurseries is also crucial. Nurseries need to be close to the producer and to the market, otherwise they might fail. Clear drivers for the success of a nursery are good agricultural practices and, interestingly, a diversification into crops outside banana.

Plantain for sale in market. Photo by IITA.
Plantain for sale in market. Photo by IITA.

In TC banana value chains, nurseries have different roles across countries in East Africa. In Uganda, nurseries are run as businesses independent of the TC operators and of the farmers. In Burundi, the nurseries are owned and managed by the producers. In Kenya, nurseries are run as entities separate from the producers, and most of them are owned by farmers’ groups that act as the customers for these nurseries. The business model in Kenya seems to hold the secret for a sustainable and vigorous link between producers and farmers.

Distorted value chains
One danger for a healthy commercial TC sector is the lack of sustainable market pathways to deliver the plants to the farmers. Especially in Burundi and Uganda, outlet markets for TC plantlets are mainly governmental and nongovernmental organizations, a situation which seems unsustainable in the long term.

The sustainability of the banana TC industry is especially worrisome in Burundi, where the entire value chain is subsidized. Virtually all TC plantlets are being bought by developmental agencies, which then pass on these plantlets to often untrained farmers, free of charge, and without embedding this transfer in an encompassing training program or input package (e.g., fertilizers).

Empowerment of farmers in the value chain through farmers’ groups
Organizing banana farmers into groups has long been considered advantageous, because of increased buying and selling power, reduced economic and social risk, increased economies of scale, and improved access to credit and inputs by formally certified groups.

The study by IITA and the University of Hohenheim of the farmer-to-market linkage in Uganda demonstrated that farmers in marketing groups obtain higher prices than their ungrouped colleagues. The certification of farmers’ groups implemented by IITA’s national partners, ISABU (L’Institut des Sciences Agronomiques du Burundi) in Burundi and VEDCO (Volunteer Efforts and Development Concerns) in Uganda, has made them eligible for savings and credit schemes. Some have even engaged in other commercial activities, such as the start-up of a catering service.

The importance of a training package
In East Africa, the distribution of superior planting material alone will not ensure a good crop. Commercial farmers are skilled in juggling the inputs and effort needed to produce crops and make a profit but smallholder farmers are constrained by factors such as a lack of land and capital, access to technology, and a good marketing infrastructure. Therefore, efficient distribution systems will be needed to deliver the TC plants as part of a package, including training and access to microcredit.

Training of farmers' group on business skills in Uganda. Photo by M. Lule.
Training of farmers' group on business skills in Uganda. Photo by M. Lule.

IITA and its national partners, ISABU, JKUAT (Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology), and VEDCO, have been implementing hands-on, comprehensive training schemes for farmers as well as the operators of TC banana nurseries. Training schemes encompass modules in agronomy, marketing, business and financing, and for farmers, group formation and group dynamics. Participants were followed for over a year, and their ability to implement the skills learned during the training program was monitored. So far, a total of 851 separate training events have been implemented in Burundi, Kenya, and Uganda, and through the partnership, 10 new farmers’ groups and 5 new nurseries have been established.

Location, location, location
TC banana plantlets come at a cost, and might not be economically beneficial throughout all banana-producing areas in East Africa. Location is everything.

IITA, in collaboration with Makerere University, conducted a cost-benefit analysis of the technology based on a comprehensive quantitative questionnaire with 240 farmers across four districts in Uganda, and compared it with the use of conventional planting material.

Gross margins (in Ugandan shillings)/ha/year of banana plantations derived from tissue culture (yellow bars) compared to conventional planting material (orange bars) in Uganda, the further away from the main banana market.
Gross margins (in Ugandan shillings)/ha/year of banana plantations derived from tissue culture (yellow bars) compared to conventional planting material (orange bars) in Uganda, the further away from the main banana market.

Both production costs and revenues were consistently higher for TC-derived material than for suckers. However, banana prices varied greatly with district and declined significantly with increasing distance from the main market (see graph). Also, production costs decreased significantly the further away the farms were from Kampala due to better agroecological conditions and the much reduced pressure from pests and diseases. As a result, although both TC plantlets and suckers were profitable to the farmer, TC material was more profitable than suckers closer to the main banana market.

In districts with low banana prices and at a greater distance from the main banana market, farmers could receive similar gains by planting suckers rather than TC plants. For a farmer in Uganda, it makes economical sense to grow TC banana close to the main urban market.

An objective ex-post assessment
Despite a booming commercial sector, there is only anecdotal evidence that farmers who have adopted TC banana benefit tremendously in terms of higher yields and household incomes. Sound socioeconomic analyses are crucial to guide policy strategies, learn from successes already achieved, and identify important constraints for a wider dissemination of TC banana in the region.

Earlier studies on the impacts of TC banana in the region have either employed ex ante methods before any meaningful adoption was actually observable, or they have used relatively simple and ad hoc qualitative methodological tools, which do not allow robust and representative statements. The large body of subjective ‘gray’ literature, sometimes unconditionally and unilaterally promoting the benefits of TC banana, without considering the quality of the plant material, input package, and market access, risks having an adverse effect on the adoption of the technology in the long term.

Banana market in Ikire, Nigeria. Photo by O. Adebayo, IITA.
Banana market in Ikire, Nigeria. Photo by O. Adebayo, IITA.

The University of Göttingen, in collaboration with IITA, is currently answering the following main research questions: (1) What are the determinants of TC banana adoption among farmers? (2) What are the impacts of this technology on on-farm productivity, household income and income distribution, and poverty and food security? (3) How do institutional factors in technology delivery and product marketing influence adoption and impact?

Some of these research questions have been answered. In Kenya, a substantial share of the population has heard about TC banana and is, therefore, generally aware of the technology’s existence, although only a few have had a chance to fully understand its performance and requirements. This study finds that farmers’ education, access to agricultural information, knowledge of the location of a TC nursery within a reasonable distance, and affiliation to social groups significantly increase the likelihood of the TC technology being adopted.

This study also highlights the positive role of access to credit and of gender in the adoption of TC material. Farmers with access to credit and female-headed households are more likely to adopt TC plants. The latter finding is particularly interesting from a policy perspective, because it shows that, when there is an equal chance for both men and women to acquire sufficient knowledge about an innovation, women are more likely to adopt it.

Investing in aflasafeTM

aflasafeTM is a cost-effective, safe, and natural method for preventing the formation of aflatoxin in maize and other susceptible commodities in the field and also in postharvest storage and processing. It is providing hope for African farmers and opening doors for entrepreneurs looking to invest on a winning formula in the agricultural sector.

Maize farmers receive aflasafeâ„¢ from IITA. Photo by IITA.
Maize farmers receive aflasafeâ„¢ from IITA. Photo by IITA.

Scientific studies suggest that investment in aflasafeTM in Africa is viable, not only for profit but also to improve people’s health. For instance, the study of Wu and Khlangwiset (2010) estimated that the cost-effectiveness ratio (CER; gross domestic product multiplied by disability-adjusted life years saved per unit cost) for aflatoxin biocontrol in Nigerian maize ranged from 5.10 to 24.8. According to the guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO 2001), any intervention with a CER >1 is considered to be “very cost-effective”.

About aflatoxins
Produced by the fungi Aspergillus spp., aflatoxins are highly toxic fungal substances that suppress the immune system, and cause growth retardation, liver cancer, and even death in humans and domestic animals.

Aflatoxins also affect the rate of recovery from protein malnutrition and Kwashiorkor, and exert severe nutritional interference, including in protein synthesis, the modification of micronutrients, and the uptake of vitamins A and D.

Exposure in animals reduces milk and egg yields. The contamination of milk and meat is passed on to humans after consumption of these products. Aflatoxins affect cereals, oilseeds, spices, tree nuts, milk, meat, and dried fruits. Maize and groundnut are major sources of human exposure because of their higher susceptibility to contamination and frequent consumption.

The toxins are most prevalent within developing countries in tropical regions and the problem is expected to be further exacerbated by climate change.

The high incidence of aflatoxin throughout sub-Saharan Africa aggravates an already food-insecure situation. Agricultural productivity is hampered by contamination, compromising food availability, access, and utilization. Unless aflatoxins in crops and livestock are effectively managed, marketable production and food safety cannot improve. Thus, the economic benefits of increased trade cannot be achieved.
Aflatoxins cost farmers and countries hundreds of millions of dollars annually. These losses have caused crops to be moved out of regions, companies to go bankrupt, and entire agricultural communities to lose stability.

IITA staff producing aflasafeâ„¢ in the lab. Source: R. Bandyophadyay, IITA.
IITA staff producing aflasafeâ„¢ in the lab. Source: R. Bandyophadyay, IITA.

aflasafeâ„¢ to the rescue
An innovative scientific solution in the form of biocontrol has been developed by the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS). This breakthrough technology,already widely used in the United States, reduces aflatoxins during both crop development and postharvest storage, and throughout the value chain.

IITA and USDA-ARS have been collaborating since 2003 to adapt the biocontrol for Africa. They achieved significant breakthroughs that resulted in the development of an indigenous aflatoxin technology in Nigeria, now called aflasafeâ„¢. aflasafeâ„¢ contains four native atoxigenic strains of Aspergillus flavus that outcompetes and replaces the toxin-producing strains, thus reducing aflatoxin accumulation.

IITA and partners conducted trials in Nigeria. Native atoxigenic strains reduced contamination by up to 99%. The National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC) gave IITA provisional registration to begin testing of the inoculum of a mixture of four strains under the trade name aflasafeâ„¢. In 2009 and 2010, maize farmers who applied aflasafeâ„¢ achieved, on average, a reduction of >80% in aflatoxin contamination at harvest and 90% after storage.

Groundnut farmers also achieved more than 90% reduction in Nigeria and Senegal using a version of aflasafeâ„¢ with native atoxigenic strains from Senegal.

In the future
The success recorded so far in the control of aflatoxin comes from aflasafeâ„¢ produced in the lab. Consequently, to meet the demands of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, large-scale production is needed.

In Nigeria, for instance, nearly 30% of harvested maize has high levels of aflatoxins and is prone to being rejected by the feed industry. In Kenya, last year because of aflatoxin contamination, more than two million bags of maize were declared unfit for human consumption in the Eastern and the Coast provinces. Some countries, such as Senegal, have lost groundnut export market to the European Union due to aflatoxin contamination.

Commercial production of aflasafeâ„¢ would allow easy and widespread availability of a simple solution to the most recalcitrant problem affecting farmers and consumers. The monetized value of lives saved, quality of life gained, and improved trade by reducing aflatoxin far exceeds the cost of aflasafeâ„¢ production.

Reference
Wu F and Khlangwiset P. 2010. Health economic impacts and cost-effectiveness of aflatoxin-reduction strategies in Africa: case studies in biocontrol and post-harvest Interventions. Food Additives & Contaminants. Part A, 27: 4, 496—509, First published on: 05 January 2010 (iFirst).

Related website

Aflatoxin management website – www.aflasafe.com

Ken Neethling: Biocontrol champion

Ken Neethling, CEO, BCP
Ken Neethling, CEO, BCP

Ken Neethling is the chief executive officer of Biocontrol Products (BCP) based in South Africa. An engineer by training, he started working for BCP 13 years ago. Commercial biocontrol was a relatively new concept then, he says. Along the way, he became exposed to commercial fermentation and the world of microbes. Today, he manages the business and works with a “very competent team”.

BCP started as a biocontrol company, initially producing a fungal nematicide (egg stage) to work alongside those targeted at adult nematodes in an IPM program. In 1997, the Biological Control of Locusts and Grasshoppers (LUBILOSA) project approached BCP to commercially produce Green Muscle®, a flagship product, for the control of locusts, relates Ken. BCP has subsequently used its platforms of research, registrations, and production to bring other microbes to a commercial level. BCP’s range today includes many bacteria, fungi and plant extracts—for a diversity of uses in agriculture, including growth promotion, insecticides, nematicides, fungicides, and nutrition.

What are the prospects of biological control products in Africa?
BCP’s corporate slogan is “restoring nature’s balance”. In many respects this sums up the case for biocontrol products: They’re natural, generally safe to nontargets and already found in nature; they have a smaller environmental footprint and work in harmony with nature; they restore balance; this recognizes that the way we have historically treated our environment was out of balance. Restoring balance also implies sustainability and “subeconomic threshold” control strategies.

Biocontrol products are not a silver bullet—they’re part of a solution. When considering the growing global population that needs to be fed, the fertile soils of Africa are also part of the solution.

If Africa’s decision makers are receptive, then I believe biological control has a bright future in this continent.

IITA was part of the team that developed Green Muscle® years ago. The technology is one product of research that has proved quite successful. Tell us more about Green Muscle®.
I have a very high regard for IITA’s researchers…The development of Green Muscle® was truly a multidisciplinary, multicultural and multinational success story. BCP’s contribution to the development of Green Muscle® was in the areas of production, stability, formulation, costing, packaging, and providing product for trials. Over the years, BCP has also provided training on aspects of quality control and standard operating procedures. We advise on storage and provide analytical services to our Green Muscle® customers. BCP has also contributed to the registration process in some of the affected countries.

Ken Neethling, CEO of Biocontrol Products, South Africa. Photo from K. Neethling.
Ken Neethling with colleague Sifiso showing off one of BCP's industrial fermenters. Photo from K. Neethling.

Why did it take Green Muscle® almost 10 years from development to deployment to get into the market when it was so obviously a very effective product?
BCP is but one of the many champions of Green Muscle®. We worked tirelessly over the last 10 years. There were, and still are, many challenges.

The technology had to break new ground. For example, biocontrol has a completely different mode of action to the commonly used synthetic chemicals—it is slower acting on the knockdown, but with a longer residual and less environmental effect. In the case of Green Muscle®, the locusts stop feeding after 2 days. They become lethargic and, due to predation (they’re safe for birds and mammals to eat) they are quickly picked off. So the challenge was to show that not having hundreds of poisoned locust cadavers lying around was a good result!

The other challenge was cost—I’m sure many can appreciate that a biocontrol product, produced initially in small quantities, would have a very hard time competing in terms of price or cost against chemicals churned out in massive factories. Make no mistake, cost is important and especially in locust control, every dollar needs to be stretched to extract maximum benefit.

However, cost is a much bigger picture than simply the price of the active ingredient per hectare. Recent studies have indicated that the lifecycle cost of chemical control (including disposal of obsolete stock, soil decontamination, loss of pollination services, etc.), is higher than that of biocontrol.

I believe that there is still scope for even wider deployment—for example, preventative treatment campaigns in eco-sensitive breeding grounds that could prove more cost-effective than an emergency response to an outbreak.

What have been your challenges and opportunities in marketing Green Muscle®?
Our main marketing challenge is that we have so many different “customers” to consider.

First and most importantly the general population, who risk losing their food and livelihood to locust swarms of sometimes biblical proportions; the governmental plant protection departments of the various countries, who manage smaller campaigns within their borders; regional (i.e., cross border) emergency outbreak management bodies that largely depend on external funding; the United Nations, which coordinate and disperse donor funding for locust control; and the donor community, who ultimately hold the purse strings that need to be opened in large emergency campaigns.

How much is the demand for Green Muscle® in Africa?
Demand is obviously directly linked to locust outbreaks and contingent donor funding. To be honest, it has been frustratingly sporadic. This is not ideal from a production perspective, as it is more cost-effective to run continuously, with regular planned off-takes. To date, supply has been able to keep up, but we have also had to burn the midnight oil a few times in an emergency.

Is there any interest in the product outside Africa?
Yes there is interest outside Africa. My interpretation of this is that “good news travels fast”. But finding the right partners, doing trials, establishing market potential, drawing up agreements, licensing and all the other factors mean that this type of product can never be expected to be an “overnight success”.

What is the outlook of biocontrol, in general, in Africa? The world?
In summary, I would say the outlook is good, but this needs work and commitment from all stakeholders before it can have a meaningful impact on Africa. The same would apply to the rest of the world, except that consumer awareness (and hence demand) is higher in the developed world.

Do you think biocontrol would become competitive enough against chemical-based control measures?
Historically it can be argued that biocontrol hasn’t challenged chemical-based control measures, but that was partly due to the way we viewed this notion of control. What we have seen is that novel strains and human ingenuity are helping to make biocontrol a worthy alternative to chemicals. We’ve experienced this first hand with Green Muscle® in large-scale control operations, where we have had control comparable to that of the chemicals. In some extreme situations, such as in Algeria, we saw exceptional control, a level greater than 90%.

What would help to popularize the adoption of biocontrol technologies?
This challenge requires total commitment from many diverse stakeholders. But the basic principle, “Use it or lose it,” applies. Biocontrol technologies must be used and must make a difference in areas that count; otherwise they will forever remain in the research domain.

Green Muscle has gone the way of traditional R&D (i.e., research/science -> product development -> commercialization). When should the private sector come in?
Necessity is the mother of invention, so while I lean towards the commercial sector as being more in touch with the needs of the market, there is nothing to say that scientists can’t also fulfill this role. What is important is that there is a clear path to market, with early involvement of a commercial partner and good communication among all stakeholders during the development cycle.

What is needed to push agricultural technologies, such as biocontrol, from the research shelves to the market and eventually to the intended end-users?
A lot of money, for starters! Much more than I think anyone ever estimated. And a lot of time too. It needs product champions across the board: in government, in research, in the media, and in the procurement and purchasing channels.

What would you tell scientists or research organizations, such as IITA, working on biocontrol development?
There is a lot of good work being done by scientists around the world—biocontrol technology development is one of the many exciting and challenging areas with so much potential. The aim of science is to increase knowledge for the purposes of serving humanity and protecting our planet—whatever we research, develop, and commercialize must have these values as their foundation.