Each November, smallholder farmers in Nigeria flock to their fields to begin one of the country’s two maize harvests. Unfortunately, many will find that in place of a bright yellow ear of maize, a brownish grey mold has infected the plant, rendering the crop inedible and the farmers’ livelihood devastated. This mold, known as the Aspergillus fungus, releases a highly toxic, cancer-causing substance known as aflatoxin. Across Nigeria and much of Africa, a high percentage of maize is affected by aflatoxins. When ingested, and, in some cases, absorbed through the skin, aflatoxins cause a myriad of fatal cancers and severe stunting in children.
But aflatoxins are not concentrated to the African continent. In fact, aflatoxin contamination affects over 4.5 billion people worldwide.
Because of the devastating effects caused by the Aspergillus fungus and the aflatoxins they produce, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service, led by Dr. Peter Cotty of the University of Arizona, developed a product called Aflasafe™, that uses the same fungus to outcompete the aflatoxin-producing fungi and prevents contamination. It is easily applied to the soil of farmers’ fields and has a highly successful impact in minimizing or preventing contamination.
The one setback, however, is that control agents are environment specific. Where the agent would be successful in, say, the United States, because of specifics in soil, environment and other details, it would be completely ineffective to help the billions of smallholders and their families across the globe.
Therefore Dr. Cotty teamed up with Dr. Ranajit Bandyopadhyay of the Africa-based International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) to adapt and develop Aflasafe™ for the Nigerian context – specifically, by using Aspergillus fungus strains native to Nigeria. The result of their collaboration has been an effective biocontrol agent that reduces the negative impact of aflatoxins in the West African country.
However, using USDA’s technology and expertise, as well as in collaboration with IITA’s, is only the first step in addressing aflatoxin across Nigeria. The next is to ensure the product reaches those most vulnerable to contaminated maize: smallholder farmers.
Introducing new products into a market is challenging and often costly. Consumers have to be made aware of the product and its benefits and demand sufficient quantities to make it profitable for producers. In the case of Aflasafe™ in Nigeria, most private sector actors lack the financial resources needed to supply enough Aflasafe™ to small holder farmers. Additionally, a lack of awareness of aflatoxins and their negative impact decreases the demand for such a biocontrol agent.
To overcome these challenges, in Nigeria AgResults launched the Nigeria Aflasafe™ Pilot, a prize competition to incentivize private sector aggregators and grain traders to facilitate the adoption of Aflasafe™ by smallholder farmers. Aggregators are private sector actors who provide Aflasafe™ and other farm inputs to smallholder farmers as well as guidance on proper use. In turn, smallholder farmers sell some of their maize to these aggregators to sell at a higher price at market. Providing them with additional monetary incentives based on Aflasafe™ adoption will ideally increase the access to Aflasafe™ as well as the demand for this US-developed, African-adapted product by smallholder farmers.
The project has been operating for three years with exciting results. Aggregators report receiving premiums for Aflasafe™ treated maize that are on average 13-17% above the market rate and the number of participating smallholder farmers has grown from 1000 in the first year to 14,000 in the fourth year. Aflasafe™ has shown to be over 98% effective and because of the impact in Nigeria, the product is being rolled out in thirteen southern African countries through USAID and Gates Foundation programs. By harnessing US ingenuity and collaboration, and openness to new markets, farmers can look forward to harvests full of bright orange corn free of aflatoxins.