Improving food safety in Malawi’s groundnuts and giving a voice to women farmers

Improving food safety in Malawi’s groundnuts and giving a voice to women farmers Have you ever hesitated eating a meal and questioned the conditions that the food had been through? Better yet, have these thoughts ever dwelled further and mulled over the whole production chain right from the point of planting? It is quite frightening to note that even a simple snack of Groundnuts not cared for properly in its agricultural cycle could be harmful and put us at risk of acute liver cancer and stunted growth.

Poisonous fungus Aflatoxin is produced by a fungus found in the soil that usually thrives due to poor pre and post harvesting practices. It can be found in several crops including maize, rice and groundnuts. This toxin is associated with risks of liver cancer, impaired growth in under-fives and suppression of the immune system. It is known to contaminate crops before or after harvest and host crops are usually prone to infection following prolonged exposure to high moisture content with high temperatures. This micro-organism can be controlled by timely planting of crops and appropriate post harvest drying which reduces breeding ground for contamination.

Improving food safety in Malawi’s groundnuts and giving a voice to women farmers Have you ever hesitated eating a meal and questioned the conditions that the food had been through? Better yet, have these thoughts ever dwelled further and mulled over the whole production chain right from the point of planting? It is quite frightening to note that even a simple snack of Groundnuts not cared for properly in its agricultural cycle could be harmful and put us at risk of acute liver cancer and stunted growth.

Poisonous fungus Aflatoxin is produced by a fungus found in the soil that usually thrives due to poor pre and post harvesting practices. It can be found in several crops including maize, rice and groundnuts. This toxin is associated with risks of liver cancer, impaired growth in under-fives and suppression of the immune system. It is known to contaminate crops before or after harvest and host crops are usually prone to infection following prolonged exposure to high moisture content with high temperatures. This micro-organism can be controlled by timely planting of crops and appropriate post harvest drying which reduces breeding ground for contamination.

The Centre for Disease Control estimates that 4.5 billion people worldwide are chronically exposed to aflatoxin in their diets. Through consuming unsafe foods, communities in most developing countries like Malawi where there is a limited consideration of food safety, face an increased danger of developing childhood stunting and other chronic infections. Once ingested, aflatoxin can move across the placenta and into mothers' milk. Children weaned onto maize porridge are also often exposed to high levels of the toxin. 

NASFAM and Twin project

For eight years now, London based organization, Twin together with NASFAM has worked to re-establish Malawi’s reputation for safe and nutritious groundnuts by looking at contamination of foods by a toxin called aflatoxin. In 2012, Twin and NASFAM launched a three year Global poverty Action Fund (GPAF) project with funding from DFID which aimed improving the safety of groundnuts being produced for domestic, regional and international consumers. NASFAM members from Mchinji, Ntchisi, Lilongwe North and Lilongwe South are benefitting from the project. Through practical learning on demonstration plots during field days and supply chain development, NASFAM members are better able to produce a groundnut crop that can safely meet their domestic needs as well as be sold into high value international markets. Consolata Mkowa The GPAF project has four key outputs; increasing the number of members who have access to appropriate seed and training in good agricultural practices, more women members becoming empowered in their communities, accessing new markets and achieving greater control over income from groundnuts, increasing awareness of aflatoxin from groundnuts and improved post harvest process.

Women Empowerment

The GPAF project’s emphasis is on strengthening the role of women smallholder farmers in their communities and in groundnut value chains whilst raising awareness of the causes, effects and solutions to aflatoxin contamination. Consolata Mkowa, hails from Mikundi village in Mchinji district. She is one of NASFAM’s female farmer trainers who were trained in what aflatoxins are and the dangers associated with this micro-organism in November last year. The three day training opportunity occurred at Matulu Village and at least three representatives from every club in the Mikundi Chapter which is a collective NASFAM affiliated farmers’ clubs were accorded the chance to attend. The idea was that farmer trainers grasp the information taught and afterwards, pass it on to their fellow club members in the surrounding villages. “From what we learnt, we now know that aflatoxin is associated with poor pre and post harvesting practices in our groundnut production that centre around careless methods of harvesting, drying the groundnuts and even storage. The simple act of planting my groundnuts late into the rainy season can also put my harvests at risk of aflatoxin contamination. This is why today, I am working hard to ensure that groundnuts grown on my 1 acre of lands is planted at the right spacing, with first planting rains, is weed free, harvested at the right time and properly dried to reduce contamination.” She explains.

Some of the trained farmers
It is women farmers like Consolata who are highly targeted in this project. Groundnuts are considered to be a ‘women’s crop’- where women carry out the majority of pre and post harvest activities, including the time consuming and painful task of shelling. However, when it comes to marketing the crop it is common practice for men to sell and take control of the resulting income. The GPAF project is working with smallholders to promote gender equality in groundnut production and marketing. 

Food safety and access to markets

Groundnuts are a vital source of cash income and highly nutritious food for rural households. However, along with maize and sorghum they suffer significantly from aflatoxin contamination. “I and my husband have three children, and we also take care of my late sister’s niece. I began producing groundnuts in the year 2009. At first, my goal was only centered on delivering my produce to the market regardless of the quality. Most vendors buy ungraded groundnuts while NASFAM looks for quality groundnuts. At first I did not know the resulting dangers and in so doing, I was putting other people’s lives at risk. It is reassuring life saving today to be aware of the risks associated with any neglect I make when growing my groundnuts. With the training received in aflatoxin, I am now making sure I dry and store my Groundnuts the appropriate way and have them ready for the market,” says Consolata.


Mandelakoko, one way of drying groundnuts

So far, most work has focused on raising awareness of these deadly fungi. With greater attention paid to capacity building education, investment in storage and processing, all farmers will be able to take a stance to improve food safety. More women like Consolata stand a chance of having a greater say in the profits of their harvest, spreading the word on aflatoxin and playing a key role in increasing safety, quality and value of groundnuts in Malawi.