The past few days have left some Ugandans who know in a spot of bother because of the story of Kenya banning export of Ugandan maize contaminated with aflatoxins. The Daily Monitor online delivered another headline on the 8th March 2021 titled, “Kenya adds Maize, Chicken and Eggs on list of banned Ugandan Exports”. It is reported in that story that the ban will hold back about 350,000 tonnes of maize exported annually to Kenya. This is bound to setback an already frail Ugandan economy beleaguered by the disastrous effects of COVID-19 by more than US$ 120m in denied income.
The media reportage and public discourse which the above story has generated in Uganda is proof that the more we read this story, the more we don’t get it. Since we now know that Kenya has rejected our aflatoxin contaminated maize why are we not concerned that this toxic maize will remain in Uganda instead and be processed by many maize mills to provide contaminated human and animal food. Why is the story more about Kenya rejecting and not Uganda accepting to stay with rather than safely dispose of the contaminated maize. Do we need more evidence to show our collective expression of the little understanding of the notion of food justice as a human right beyond this story. I think not.
All Ugandans need to know that aflatoxins are naturally occurring toxins which are produced by moulds or fungi which usually present in a greenish/grey color on grain. Aflatoxins thrive a lot in tropical climate abundant in most of Sub-Saharan Africa where high temperatures and humidity conditions obtain. Whereas a lot of the aflatoxin contamination occurs in the gardens, improper storage of grain under warm and humid conditions can typically lead to levels of contamination much higher than those found in the garden.
During the recent visit of the Anti-Counterfeit Network (ACN) to the Uganda Cancer Institute at Mulago, we were informed that cancer cases are on the rise among children and adults despite the best efforts of the Institute of increasing the cancer drug availability to Ugandans from 30% to 90%. We are hoping to conduct a study into the relationship between Counterfeits in the form of contaminated food, fake phones, cosmetics etc and the increased number of cancer cases in Uganda. But even before the study is commissioned, we should be worried because the World Health Organization estimates that aflatoxin exposure is responsible for more than 30% of Liver cancers diagnosed in Africa. We should even be more worried because aflatoxins invade most crops we eat including cereal grains like ground nuts, sorghum, millet, sunflower seeds, rice and root fibers like cassava and sweet potatoes.
My argument therefore is that these aflatoxins will continue to exist and kill us whether Kenya rejects our maize or not. Whether Kenya opens its borders to our products or not, we shall still continue to be exposed to aflatoxins in meat or milk products from animals which are fed on contaminated animal feed. Eggs from chicken that eat contaminated chicken feed which is rampant on the Ugandan market will continue to make us sick whether Kenya is open or closed. And even breast-feeding mothers who may not know about the Kenyan story but are eating aflatoxin laced food will continue passing on the toxins to their babies through breast milk. Can’t we see that we are surely setting ourselves up for a public health crisis which will certainly cascade the COVID-19 pandemic?
For me, the story of Kenya rejecting our contaminated maize is a classic case of the proverbial idiom of the pot calling the kettle black. Kenya is one of the worlds hotspots for aflatoxins due to their insatiable want for the maize meal – Ugali. It is said that convincing Kenyans not to eat maize is an uphill task because even those who will claim to have stopped eating it will still eat it at least once a day. So, the impact of the Kenyan rejection story might be that many price sensitive Ugandans may turn to eating more Ugali since it will become more affordable due to the excess supply of maize left behind by our Kenyan brothers. This maize is going to provide meals for many Ugandans including school children, mothers and the elderly because the Ugandan traders will not throw it away much the same way the Ugandan consumers will accept it, knowingly or unknowingly. And you guessed right, the Authorities in Uganda will most certainly continue to do nothing to protect the Ugandan consumer. So by the end of this Kenyan ban, Uganda might be competing favorably with Kenya as a world hotspot for aflatoxins and aflatoxin caused diseases like liver cancer.
We should however do something about aflatoxins and resume the lucrative business of exporting maize and other agricultural products to Kenya to earn that much needed cash. Though aflatoxins are naturally occurring contaminants which are not caused by the Government, their incidence can be made worse if the Authorities which are supposed to control food standards in the Country ignore them like they appear to be doing.
At ACN, we see a relationship between aflatoxins in food and counterfeiters in other products because they both contaminate the genuine product. We therefore believe that just like in other cases, an integrated approach is needed to control this twin problem of aflatoxins and counterfeits in our food eco system. There is need for, among others, the promotion of better agricultural and storage techniques accompanied by early diagnosis and testing for food contamination coupled with enforcement of strict food standards. This should be crowned with a robust education and awareness campaign for farmers and consumers alike. The Anti-Counterfeit Network is doing its part by promoting consumer awareness about the concealed dangers of counterfeits by going live every Friday on the YouTube, Facebook and Twitter Anti-Counterfeit Network Africa channels.
By Fred Muwema
Director Legal/Corporate Affairs
Anti Counterfeit Network Africa. &
Muwema & Co Advocates