The importance of improving food safety in Africa


Original article published on Spore Magazine by Caspar van Vark.

Foodborne diseases cause around 600 million people – or almost 10% of the world’s population – to fall ill each year, according to a 2015 WHO report. Of these, 420,000 will die, with developing countries the hardest hit. Food can be made unsafe in many ways: through bacteria such as E.coli and Salmonella, viruses such as Norovirus, pesticide residues, or natural toxins such as cyanide in cassava or aflatoxins in staple crops like maize and groundnuts. 

The scale of ill-health caused by unsafe food makes it a critical component of achieving the SDGs. As well as being a public health issue, poor safety standards can undermine poverty reduction strategies by excluding producers – especially smallholders – from agriculture-led trade when their produce cannot be sold due to safety concerns. “Achieving the three key SDGs addressing poverty, hunger and health requires new focus and real progress on food safety,” says Michael Taylor, a consultant with the Global Food Safety Partnership, who is currently leading a projectevaluating efforts by over 30 organisations to improve food safety capacity building.  

“Currently, the donor community’s investment activity in food safety is heavily tilted toward trade and market access,” adds Taylor, which often takes the form of helping producers and policy-makers adhere to global standards to gain access to high-value markets. One recent European Development Fund project in Benin, for example, trained 11 food enterprises – including Benin Gold, a cashew nut exporter – to meet Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points standards and access the European market. A 2016 FAO project in Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe focused on establishing national Codex Alimentarius contact points and National Codex Committees to enable those countries to make better use of those standards and access international markets. 

Adhering to formal quality and safety standards has been associated with improved incomes. One study of Ghanaian pineapple growers, for example, found that Global Good Agricultural Practices-certified farmers earned GH₵ 15,027 (€2,7677) per ha of pineapple, while non-certified pineapple farmers earned GH₵ 6,526 (€1,152). However, the application of formal standards to specific value chains does not automatically improve the safety of the local food supply. As Amare Ayalew, programme manager at the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa points out, “Efforts aiming at export markets may end up taking out the safer produce, leaving behind contaminated produce.” 

Aflatoxin innovations 

Aflatoxins exemplify the level of threat that food contamination poses to development – both economic and in public health – and as such, have been the focus of some innovative research. A partnership between Microsoft and the industrial technology giant Bühler, for example, led to the recent announcement of a new type of sorting technology – LumoVision – which identifies any kernels that fluoresce as green (an indication of contamination) as they pass under UV lighting. Nozzles then blow the contaminated kernels out of the stream.  

One promising solution to aflatoxin contamination already on the market is the biological control Aflasafe which introduces a related, but harmless strain of the fungus in a process of ‘competitive exclusion’. It launched in 2017 and is now available in Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal. It reduces contamination by more than 70% and has enabled farmers to earn a 13-17% premium for treated crops. Distribution is now being scaled up under the Aflasafe Technology Transfer and Commercialization Project (ATTC), funded by a US$20 million (€17 million) grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID, with a focus on developing local private sector-led dissemination. 

Matieyedou Konlambigue, ATTC managing director, says partnership with the private sector is essential to making Aflasafe a sustainable solution. “The private sector has the expertise and capacity to create local production and spur distribution,” he says. 

Reaching scale through informal markets 

There’s a growing recognition that a sustainable solution to the problem of unsafe food has to include informal markets, which, in many places, are people’s main source of food. Adhering to global standards may not always be practical in those settings, but localised training and raising awareness can improve safety. According to Sandy Thomas, director of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition – which recently published a briefing on private sector engagement to create healthier and safer food systems – informal markets are a neglected but crucial lever to pull. “In Kenya, Zambia and Nicaragua, for example, over 90% of all fruits and vegetables are purchased in traditional retail outlets. Restrictive approaches to the informal food sector can underplay its key role in providing food security for low-income households.”  

The International Livestock Research Institute’s (ILRI) Safe Food, Fair Food initiative also supports the role of informal markets, advocating approaches such as training for informal market vendors to encourage safer practices. In a recent report commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ILRI noted that hygiene training for informal meat vendors in Nigeria cost just ₦3,200 (€7.5) per butcher. Through such training, the economic gains were estimated at ₦281,600 (€661) per butcher as a result of reducing diarrhoea and increasing confidence among their customers.  

In some cases, food can be made unsafe through deliberate adulteration. According to the Global Panel report, Ghanaian palm oil is often laced with a carcinogenic food colouring known as Sudan IV, while in Uganda, formalin – an embalming agent – is used to give meat and fish the illusion of freshness. Food fraud has always existed and will probably be impossible to ever fully prevent. But looking to the future, could blockchain make a difference? The technology is just starting to be applied to food chains, with cloud-based ledgers improving traceability, which in turn means that when problems are detected, any interventions can be made more quickly and accurately.  

US-based Bext360 is one of the trailblazers, using blockchain technology for on-farm coffee grading machines in Uganda where farmers deposit their beans for analysis and payment. “Each evaluation and transaction – including farmer identification, quality, purchasers and pay-outs – is recorded on the blockchain, providing complete visibility,” says Bext360 spokesperson Kim Vu. “And if you detected a contaminant, blockchain could help track the issue right back to the source.” 

Caspar van Vark