Using innovation to improve grain quality in Rwanda

AflaSight’s machinery identifies and removes aflatoxin-infected maize kernels, reducing an estimated 90% of aflatoxin present in the grains it processes. Photo by Simeon Uwiringiyeyesu

By Daphna Berman

Emile Ngaboyisonga wishes he didn’t need to travel so much, but as a grain trader who sources maize and soya for some of Rwanda’s largest agro-processors, he’s often crisscrossing through Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania to meet his clients’ demands.

Local supply isn’t an issue: As Ngaboyisonga himself concedes, there’s plenty of grain in his native Rwanda – and it’s significantly cheaper too. But for Ngaboyisonga and the clients he represents, the quality of local harvests is just too low. “It’s an unfortunate situation, but many farmers in Rwanda can’t meet the standards of the formal market,” he said.

As part of the Rwanda Grain Markets project, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) is supporting two innovative local companies that work to decrease the incidence of aflatoxin, a mould-growing carcinogen that is pervasive in local grains. Though invisible to the human eye – and largely undetected by farmers – aflatoxin is associated with the suppression of the immune system, childhood malnutrition and is lethal in high doses. About 30% of local grain samples have aflatoxin above levels safe for human consumption, largely due to the country’s high humidity levels, short dry season, and lack of mechanical, post-harvest practices. Improper storage also means that even grain that does not have aflatoxin is often unsuitable: more than 80% of samples are too wet for safe storage and more than 90% fall outside of formal requirements for high-quality grain.

AflaKiosk, a Kigali-based startup, is tackling that challenge by providing affordable quality aflatoxin testing services for grain at a fraction of the price charged by regulators. The company has two mobile grain testing facilities that move between ten major grain trading hubs across the country, “meeting demand along the value chain,” as Benjamin Byinshi, a senior analyst at Vanguard Economics, the research company that implements the technology, recently explained. These “AflaKiosks” provide grain testing services – with results in just 30 minutes – that allow traders and farmers the ability to determine the quality of their grain before selling it. The company also connects farmers with quality grain to high-value markets so that they can fetch better prices.

“We’re creating incentives for improving grain quality,” Byinshi said. “Farmers and traders test their grain onsite and see immediately that they’re able to get a premium price for higher-quality maize.”

AflaKiosk’s testing services provide results in just 30 minutes, which allows traders and farmers the ability to determine the quality of their grain before selling it. Photo by Simeon Uwiringiyeyesu.

The IFC is also supporting AflaSight, another Kigali-based startup that uses technology to identify aflatoxin-infected maize kernels. Though aflatoxin is impossible to remove, it glows bright blue under UV light, and so the company’s proprietary machinery is able to identify, sort and remove individual kernels using jets of air. The process reduces an estimated 90% of the aflatoxin present and is the cheapest means of aflatoxin control in Rwanda to date.

AflaSight’s UV sorter is precise, and so only about 5% of crops it processes are lost. The improvement is dramatic: grain entering the company’s warehouse has an average aflatoxin level of 135 parts per billion (ppb) and when the sorting and removal process is done – about 15 metric tonnes per hour – grains have an average level of just 8.3 ppb, rendering it food safe. The result is that even with minimal lost crop, smallholder farmers and grain aggregators increase their incomes by 20%, while also ensuring that a safe product is making its way to consumers.

“We are trying to democratise the value chain and reach as many farmers and cooperatives as possible to improve grain quality,” Kathryn Rendon, managing director of AflaSight, said during a recent tour of the company’s warehouse.

The two companies also work together closely: After testing, AflaKiosk sends grains with high rates of aflatoxin across town to AflaSight, where maize, as well as peanuts and sorghum, is sorted. And both companies help contribute to a food safety training for grain aggregators, which is also part of the project. Data from AflaKiosk from along the value chain, for example, helps trainers better understand where along the value chain quality starts to deteriorate – and how to find specific solutions.

An estimated 75% of Rwanda’s agricultural production comes from smallholder farmers, who produce an estimated 350,000 tonnes of maize every year. But because their harvests are largely untouchable by local agri-processors, the maize they produce is sold into unregulated and informal channels, where they earn much lower prices. And it’s not just a financial issue: consumers across the country unknowingly eat contaminated grains, which can cause a range of health issues. Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 500 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are exposed to aflatoxin’s serious long-term health effects.

This article was first published by the IFC.