Grown on over 22.2 million hectares worldwide, groundnut (Arachis hypo-gaea L,) has been used for decades as an important protein-rich source for people in developing countries, while its oilseed, cake and haulms are used traditionally as animal feed.
This native South American legume is believed to have been brought to Africa by West African immigrants about 200 years ago. Today, Sudan proudly boasts 14% of the world total peanut’s production and is one of the top five producers worldwide providing much needed foreign exchange. In fact, groundnut cultivated area represents about 35% of total cash crop area.
Domestic use of this legume includes households’ food consumption and additives to solvents, oils, local medicines, dyes and cosmetics. Two varieties of groundnut are grown in Sudan; one is grown in the western part of the county accounting to 60-70% of the total production whilst the other variety grows in Gazeria and East Sudan. The ‘western’ groundnut that is typically grown in Darfur is known to be of better quality possessing higher levels of protein and oil.
Darfur, however, has been constantly caught up in a vicious circle of insecurity, conflict, and economic hardship hindering thus steady production of groundnut. Unequal access to livelihoods opportunities in the region has further intensified tensions between the existing communities particularly in areas receiving a large number of returnees fleeing the nearby war.
In order to overcome economic hardships and mitigate potential conflict, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has initiated the Darfur Livelihoods Recovery Programme to improve farmers’ production and business capacity in producing a number of essential trade commodities such as groundnut, hibiscus, hides and skin and honey. In its initial stages the project targeted around 120,000 individuals (20,000 households) resulting in an increase in annual income rates ranging from $100 to as high as $3,000 with sustained efforts over two harvests.
Nevertheless, low yields of groundnut poses as a threat to the newly presented on- farm and off –farm employment opportunities resulting in a decrease in the proliferation of these small scale industries.
Low production however, cannot be attributed merely to the precarious security situation in Darfur. Another serious problem affecting production is aflatoxin contamination.
Aflatoxin is a poisonous organic compound that grows on seeds. Two structural types of aflatoxins are known: B and G types, of which aflatoxin B1 is considered to be the most toxic.
In general, the contamination of seeds occurs as a result of poor pre- and post-harvest practices, such as inadequate drying and storage of seeds. Usually, poor-quality kernels – immature, shriveled or damaged – are more prone to contamination by aflatoxin.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (USA) and the World Health Organization estimate that approximately 80% of liver cancers in the tropical and sub-tropical parts of the developing world are related to Aflatoxin ingestion. Aflatoxins are also linked increased susceptibility to maternal anemia and childhood stunting. Additional research is being carried out to investigate its potent carcinogenic and immunosuppressive effect. Further, animal’s intake of aflatoxin-contaminated feed results in the production of milk and dairy products that contain high levels of aflatoxin. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, ingestion of 2–6 mg/day of aflatoxin for a month leads to acute hepatitis and consequently death. Standard Aflatoxin levels in groundnut worldwide are: 4ppb in EU countries and 20ppb in the U.S.
“In Sudan the problem is compounded,” explains Professor Intisar Turki of the Sudanese Environmental Organization for Technology, Agricultural Studies & Animal production at the Sudan University: “There are no specific studies to guide us as to the actual scale of Aflatoxin contamination in groundnut that is currently being sold in the markets. This is a poisonous mycotoxin. We are very much aware of the health hazards involved but our hands are tied. We do not have the necessary funding to investigate into the genesis of the problem and develop and promote appropriate crop management methods using biocontrol technology. Imported solutions will not work either, we need to develop an organic compound that counters the effect of Aflatoxin in Sudan but universities and research institutes do not have the necessary funding to do that .”
Asked about government regulatory agencies that control and monitor Aflatoxin levels in groundnut, Turki explains “The Sudanese Standard and Metrology Organization has set out standards for the provide sector to abide by in the manufacture of peanut butter, in order for factories to receive licenses to operate. However, I see very little work done in monitoring aflatoxin levels in peanut butter production either in factories or even at the open local markets where groundnut is sold widely.”
Turki concludes by saying “Aflatoxin is not only a health concern; it is also an economic one given that agricultural products account for about 95 percent of the country’s exports. In order to reach solutions, more attention should be given to research which is not happening now.”
Globally, US$1.2 billion is lost annually to Aflatoxin contamination, with African economies losing US$ 450 million each year due to more stringent European limits on Aflatoxin present in grains and nuts.
Diminishing groundnut output has also severely affected prices. According to the Sudanese Federation of Industrial Chambers the decrease in groundnut production has resulted in a food gap which consequently resulted in sudden hike in prices: One metric ton of groundnut currently costs 13,500 SDG (USD 2,265) whilst at the beginning of the year it used to cost 4,100 SDG (USD 687).
Cognizant of the increasing threat of Aflatoxin contamination in groundnuts a leading Sudanese private company, DAL Group in collaboration with UNDP, embarked on sensitizing famers in Darfur on the risks associated with high levels of Aflatoxin being present in their produce. As Business Development Manager at DAL Group Amar Ali explains: “The problem goes beyond direct intake of groundnut by humans. Both groundnut and cake made from crushed seeds are major sources of animal feed. This can lead to the contamination of milk in both urban and rural areas, potentially exposing a huge cross-section of the population, particularly children, to the effects of Aflatoxin. This prompted us to address the issue with farmers immediately and work towards raising their awareness.
Ali adds “Management of Aflatoxin level involves more than just controlling the process of cultivation. There is a whole bunch of other players involved; those responsible for packaging, storing as well as traders in the market. Basically it’s a whole supply chain and we need to raise awareness that certain conditions such as humidity affect the seedlings leading to the infestation of Aflatoxin. We at DAL group monitor the entire supply chain and carry out testing throughout the process to ensure that the final product is in accordance with the internationally set standards for Aflatoxin intake. Our decision to help farmers stems from a moral obligation: there is not added benefit for us.”
Can Aflatoxin be treated? Ali explains “Detection methods commonly used in developed countries are too expensive, complex and time-consuming for most farmers to implement. There are two ways for treating Aflatoxin in groundnut cake; one is by using Ammonia- a method which we in DAL are trying to avoid. The other interesting solution is to prevent the problem in the first placeby using a natural, biocontrol technology that drastically cuts Aflatoxin contamination in food crops named Aflasafe. Usage of Aflasafe reduces Aflatoxin contamination by more than 70% and helps increase crop value by at least 25%, and improves the health of children and women. A leading example is that of Nigeria where 25% of reported liver cancer cases have been attributed to the presence of Aflatoxin. This led the Nigerian government to take some serious actions to counter this effect.”
Nigeria managed to successfully counter the effect of groundnut contamination by investing heavily in various researches on Aflatoxin, which has been conducted under the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA) established with donor support from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID and DIFD.
Following a Country Assessment for Aflatoxin Contamination and Control in Nigeria in 2012, a number of measures have been enforced to control Aflatoxin contamination. These interventions include I) The creation of various regulatory agencies involved in the control of mycotoxins for setting of standards II)Enhancing of awareness of the health hazards associated with aflatoxin amongst all stakeholders III) Distribution of low cost Aflatoxin testing kits IV) The commercialization ofaflasafeTM by the private sector.
In North Darfur, the Pro-Poor Value Chain Integration Project (PVC) – which is part of the larger Darfur Livelihoods & Recovery Programme- has undertaken a pilot project to build a value proposition for groundnut farmers in Darfur to grow and sell groundnuts at safe and acceptable levels of Aflatoxin.
The locality of Al lait has been selected as a pilot area for groundnut production.
Famers in Al Lait locality were educated on improved production and post-harvest practices and parameters for controlling aflatoxin under threshold levels.
The project was implemented by the Um Keddada Rural Development Project, in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture and UNDP’s Youth Volunteers project.
Abdalla Adam Suliman (45 years old) a famer who participated in this training recounts his experience by saying “I am very grateful for this opportunity of learning. You cannot imagine how badly we were affected by the previous years’ low yields. We await the harvest for the entire year and we become very disappointed if things go wrong. This is our only source of income. Therefore, this training was quite fitting for me and the other participants. We came from 11 villages all with the same concern: how to improve our yield and maximize our profit. By the end of the training we have reached 120,000 men and women famers. We were given the seeds, taught how to care for it, how to avoid humidity and were educated on how to store them as well. Pests, Tofan (Aflatoxin) are no longer present. I can clearly say that our profit in the market have increased by 65%.”
UNDP is now looking into the possibility of extending this pilot project to other localities in addition to introducing new testing expertise and kits to the famers in their next round of training.
Aflatoxin poisoning is likely to continue to be a public health problem until appropriate planting and storage methods for dry seeds are implemented by the local population. It is in the first place an awareness issue that begins with famers and those who deal with livestock but it involves various stakeholders. There is an imminent need for enhanced surveillance for human aflatoxin poisoning in Sudan and for testing of commercially sold groundnut. In addition, it is essential that funding of research to develop biochemical solutions is being carried out in the near future. Clearly there is also a need to intensify links between research institutions, the Sudanese private sector as well small scale communities in Darfur with the overall aim of safeguarding the health of consumers, famers and the society at large.