When NCBA CLUSA Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers Jock Brandis and Randy Shackelford arrived in Chipata, Zambia, they were supposed to teach local farmers simple methods to reduce harmful aflatoxin contamination in peanuts.
But they observed that most of the farmers were already practicing good post-harvest handling techniques to curb aflatoxin—drying their peanuts in the sun and storing them in elevated granaries to reduce moisture and ensure airflow.
So the pair of engineers-turned-international-development-mavericks started performing the very first “aflatoxin testing tailgates” in farmers’ fields and on store shelves with the mReader, a portable aflatoxin screener that was developed by Colorado-based Mobile Assay. What they discovered is that aflatoxin contamination is remarkably low in the fields but is highest in warehouses after peanut processing, confirming what Brandis and Shackelford already suspected: aflatoxin contamination isn’t the farmers’ fault.
Aflatoxin is a carcinogenic fungus that compromises the immune system, increasing vulnerability to malaria, TB, HIV and other life-threatening infections. Traditionally, testing involves mailing a peanut sample to a given country’s Ministry of Agriculture and waiting for a response, a process that in Zambia can take three to four weeks and rarely provides accurate readings.
The rapid diagnostic testing capability of the mReader is a dramatic breakthrough. During the “tailgate tests,” they grind up shelled peanuts in a blender powered by the cigarette lighter of a truck. Using a test strip modeled off immune testing performed in hospitals, a small sample of the blended peanuts is then inserted into a sensor connected to an iPad. Within fifteen minutes, an accurate reading appears.
“Suddenly, you can do a test anywhere, do it instantly and do it cheaply,” Brandis said during a lunch presentation at NCBA CLUSA headquarters earlier this month. He and Shackelford were in Washington, D.C. to accept their F2F Volunteer of the Year awards from the Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA).
“The portable screener is going to revolutionize the way aflatoxin is treated in Africa,” Brandis continued. It costs $5 to test a sample of peanuts and this is expected to ultimately go down to $1 or $2.
Brandis is the founder and research and development director of Full Belly Project, a nonprofit based in North Carolina that develops and distributes simple agricultural devices to improve life in rural communities. In addition to bringing Mobile Assay’s mReader to Africa, the team also introduced a hand-operated universal nut sheller during their recent Farmer-to-Farmer assignment in Zambia. With the sheller, a job that once took five people an entire day to do now takes just one person an hour.
While on assignment the team trained close to 400 farmers to use the sheller, 80 to 90 percent of whom are women, Shackelford said.
Still, without a solution to aflatoxin, the sheller was just “making it easier and more efficient for people to process toxic food and feed it to their children,” Brandis said.
That peanuts are a critical source of protein for rural farming communities in Zambia and throughout Africa makes aflatoxin “even more heartbreaking,” Brandis said. “It essentially condemns poor communities to under nutrition and stunting, especially among children, when the only protein source their parents can afford is toxic.”
When Shackelford returns to Zambia next year, he’ll take with him the Full Belly team’s latest invention: an ozone injector with 10 injector needles. The device is designed to insert into bags of peanuts and release ionized air that the team has discovered destroys the fungus that creates aflatoxin and blocks its reestablishment. Ionized air has a half-life of twenty minutes, at which point “you end up with air,” Brandis said. “This method avoids using any chemicals and leaves zero residue behind.” Ozone is commonly used in the United States for food safety and is FDA approved.
The device still needs to undergo extensive field-testing and the team is keen to manage expectations, but is also very optimistic. “The economics of getting past the brick wall with aflatoxin are nothing short of amazing,” Brandis said.
Brandis and Shackelford are also brainstorming ways to certify peanuts that have undergone treatment and are aflatoxin-free. The goal is to reopen markets for Zambian peanuts that were shut down because of high aflatoxin levels.
The team also believes the cooperative model is critical to spreading knowledge and technology in Africa. Brandis is a self-described “co-op kid” who grew up in rural Canada. “I’m so behind the cooperative philosophy, and I think nonprofit engineers like us are a perfect match for an organization like NCBA CLUSA,” Brandis said.
“Full Belly is a small organization and we depend on organizations like yours to do what we do. You get us into the field to test out our gizmos. Millions have already been spent to research the problem of aflatoxin, but because of Farmer-to-Farmer, we’re finally seeing a path to the future,” he added.
NCBA CLUSA’s USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer program sends American farmers and agribusiness professionals on 2 to 3 week agricultural development assignments, promoting sustainable economic growth and food security worldwide. Since 2010, NCBA CLUSA has deployed over 100 volunteers, providing more than three years of volunteer days and impacting thousands of smallholder farmers. NCBA CLUSA’s Zambia Farmer-to-Farmer project is being implemented under VEGA’s Special Program Support Project. For more details and to view current volunteer opportunities, click here.
(December 21, 2015)