Aflatoxins, highly toxic substances produced by fungi in tropical regions, are having devastating effects on both health and the economy in sub-Saharan Africa. Since they contaminate major crops such as maize and peanuts, they cost rural farmers close to $500 million annually.
They also cause major health problems – sometimes fatal – in rural villages, where around 60 percent of the food produced is consumed by farmers and their families.
“The farmers sell the less damaged crops, which means they are bringing the most damaged crops home to eat,” said Deo Dhakal, senior fellow at the Duke Center for International Development (DCID). “It is leading to higher incidences of liver cancer, decreased immunity and stunted growth in children.”
The U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 4.5 billion people around the world are exposed to aflatoxins.
Dhakal is currently working on a project with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to evaluate cost-effective ways of controlling aflatoxins in Malawi. Efforts to control aflatoxins in sub-Saharan Africa are sponsored by USAID, the World Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Dhakal conducted a field visit in March to farming communities in Malawi to analyze the most promising ways to reduce aflatoxins. The solution that has the most potential, he said, is “bio-control technology,” which targets the fungus that produces aflatoxins while the crop is still in the field. The method uses non-toxic fungi that overpower the toxic varieties.
“If we can reduce aflatoxins at the source – right at the field level – the health benefits would be enormous,” he said.
Dhakal contributes to DCID’s executive education programs on project appraisal, fiscal decentralization and tax analysis. He is also a senior cost benefit analysis expert and expert trainer for the Economic Policy Office of USAID in Washington, D.C.
He plans to present the final report on his findings by the end of June.