Maize saga: Lessons from Kenya’s rejection of Uganda’s maize

Maize saga: Lessons from Kenya’s rejection of Uganda’s maize

By Michael J Ssali/ Daily Monitor
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Our farmers and traders of food crops must wake up to the fact that they are actually food handlers and must observe high standards of hygiene. Today we are talking about Kenya’s rejection of our maize but tomorrow we could be faced with the rejection of our other food crops including coffee, beans, groundnuts, among others due to non-compliance with the expected quality standards.

Last week Kenya, a country where maize is a major food crop, stopped the importation of maize from Uganda because of quality concerns.
Their main complaint about Ugandan maize, according to media reports, is the presence of aflatoxins in  the maize.

Aflatoxins 
Aflatoxins are described as poisons released by certain moulds. The moulds come from soil and air and grow when grain is handled poorly. 
They cannot be seen by the naked eye and it is only trained personnel that can test their presence in a food item. They are, however, very dangerous to health since they are linked to cancer and liver damage, among other health issues.

As of 2018, the per capita consumption of maize in Kenya was 60 kilogrammes, equivalent to five kilogrammes per person per month. 
However, much as maize is greatly consumed in Kenya both as human food and livestock feed the government and health authorities in that country cannot risk the lives of their citizens by importing what is perceived to be contaminated food from Uganda.

And if it is true that Uganda’s maize carries aflatoxins, we have to go back to the drawing board to check how assiduously we have been enforcing the East African Community Maize Grain Standard that was formulated and gazetted in December 2013. 

Handling 
It all goes back to the need for increased education of our farmers and traders about the importance of hygiene as food handlers.

The ban slapped on Ugandan maize by Kenya means huge losses for maize traders and farmers as well as all stakeholders along the maize value chain. According to the Annual Agricultural Survey 2018 — Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS), maize is one of the crops identified as a priority crop in Uganda, grown by about 29 per cent of the agricultural households. 

Dangers of aflatoxins 
In 2018, about 4.4 million tonnes were produced from a land area of about 941,000 hectares. So now what are we set to do with the rejected maize?
We must have to remember that aflatoxins and other contaminants in maize are not only a health risk to Kenyans since we too consume 60 per cent of the maize we grow according to a publication titled: “Description of cropping systems, climate and soils in Uganda” by Dr K Kaizzi. If we eat contaminated maize our lives are at risk too regardless of our effort to expand the Cancer Unit at Mulago National Referral Hospital.

The food we eat could be the source of the rising cases of cancer and liver damage. Kaizzi wrote: “The crop is grown in most parts of Uganda but most intensely in eastern (Kapchorwa, Mbale, Kamuli, Jinja, and Iganga), central (Masaka, Mubende) and western (Masindi, Kamwenge, Kyenjojo, Kasese, Kabarole). More than 90 per cent of Uganda’s maize is produced by smallholders, of which about 60 per cent of the annual maize output is consumed on the farm.”

Our farmers and traders of food crops must wake up to the fact that they are actually food handlers and must observe high standards of hygiene. Today we are talking about Kenya’s rejection of our maize but tomorrow we could be faced with the rejection of our other food crops including coffee, beans, groundnuts, among others due to non-compliance with the expected quality standards. We have to realise that we are in competition with other food crop producing countries that pay sufficient attention to quality. If Kenya is rejecting our maize certainly it is looking up to an alternative supplier.

How farmers can avoid aflatoxins 
The East African Community Maize Grain Standard guidelines stipulate that all harvested maize should be properly dried and that it should be at the moisture content of 13.5 per cent. All maize should be dried on clean mats, tarpaulin, or concrete drying yards rather than on the bare ground or on tarmac road sides. Maize cobs can also be dried on raised structures such as cribs which are natural raised ventilated facilities, about two feet from the ground. 

The crib stands should be fitted with rat guards. The maize should be harvested from the garden when it is mature and already drying. 
It should be fully protected from rain once it is laid out to dry under the sun. Insufficient drying of maize or any other grain leads to mould infestation and formation of aflatoxins that are now the cause of our troubled maize trade relations with Kenya. 

Moisture content metres 
It is recommended that farmers and traders possess moisture content metres. They are expensive gadgets and perhaps beyond the means of individual smallholder farmers, but in their groups they can pool resources and buy one for their general use.

Exposure to moisture can cause germination and discolouring of the maize grain. Good appearance of maize grain matters because it attracts buyers. Maize grain should not have foreign objects such as stones, soil, and pieces of wood, feathers, bits of maize cob, or any other material.

Keep off rodents 
Farmers and traders must ensure that rodents, domestic animals, farmed animals, and birds have no access to stored grain. Livestock droppings give bad smells to grain and nobody wants to eat foul smelling grain.

People working on grain should observe strict hygiene cover their hair, avoid sneezing into the grain and they should wash their hands frequently especially after visiting the latrine.

Farmers and traders must ensure that the maize grain is protected from weevils and other insects. No buyer will want to take maize that has weevil bored holes and signs of insect presence. 

Agricultural officers can be consulted for advice on what fumigation pesticides to apply to prevent weevil attack.
Observation of good crop post-harvest guidelines ultimately improves the returns of all stakeholders in the value chain. Good quality farm products attract better prices for the farmers. 

The traders are sure of getting good farm products that they can easily sell to the consumers. The consumers are happy to eat good, clean, and safe food crops without any risk of falling sick due to food contamination.

Control … How to control aflatoxins
Farmers can reduce post-harvest losses in maize by up to 30 per cent by properly drying their grains, maintaining the cleanliness of the stores and treating the grains after harvest.

Some of the factors that contribute to these post-harvest losses are maize weevils, moths, rats and mice, moulds, fungus and large grain borers. 
To reduce this, harvest the produce when the ear cob droops (hangs down). This is then followed by drying on the ground for a period of three to four days depending on the presence of sunlight.

Planting seasonsPreviously the weather pattern indicated two good planting seasons in Uganda — March to May and September to November. Now, however, rainfall sometimes continues during the dry seasons, and prolonged dry spells during rainy seasons make it difficult for farmers to plan ahead.

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