A treatment that could control a fungal poison, aflatoxin, from infecting maize is being tested in Kenya in a project donors hope will result in a commercially viable product with regional application, officials say.
However, farmers expected to buy and use the bio-control agent, known as Aflasafe, want financial incentives to rid the market of what is often an invisible attacker.
The UN World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that literally billions of people in the developing world are chronically exposed to aflatoxin, which causes cancer, suppresses the immune system, retards growth and causes liver disease as well as death in both humans and animals, according to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), a partner in the 18-month project.
Aflatoxin is not always obvious, and maize that looks normal could actually be infested with high levels of the fungus that produces the toxin, which thrives under poor storage conditions.
Testing will focus on creating a locally successful hybrid of fungi, which, when applied to crops in the field, "crowd out" the fungus that produces the toxin. Scientists expect to know by December 2012 which combination is best for Kenya, which has a particularly virulent strain found nowhere else in Africa.
But the project also needs to answer some key questions about how to market aflasafe.
"Can the farmer afford it? Can she see a return on investment? We need a mechanism by which she can recognize value,” said Prem Warrior of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is providing the project’s $1.2 million budget.
For farmers, the question of affordability and added value is central, and could determine whether or not they use the product, no matter how effective it is.
There is currently no quote for the cost of Aflasafe, since no one is producing it at scale, Ranajit Bandyopadhyay, a principal investigator with IITA, told IRIN.
However, Bandyopadhyay estimated it would cost a farmer US$10-12 per hectare. The average farm in Kenya is just less than 2.5 hectares, according to Acumen Fund, a non-profit global venture firm.
Steve Collins, chief of party for the Kenya Maize Development Project, said Kenyan commercial farmers could afford to pay but small-scale farmers would require subsidies to get started.
Wilson Songa, the permanent secretary in Kenya's Agriculture Ministry, said there needs to be a plan to take Aflasafe from a handout to something farmers can buy on their own.
He said the Aflasafe project would immediately "touch the lives" of the 46 percent of Kenyans who live in poverty. "Some of the farmers are too poor to buy the product," said Songa. "We will ensure that the product gets to them free of charge initially."
Songa said 450 trainers would be sent out to provide education and information to farmers.
"We needed a project like this yesterday," said Songa. "The whole region is waiting."
The Ministry of Agriculture also promised to buy up 2.3 million infected bags of maize last year, but did not, saying it did not have the funds. It is unclear where it will find the money to pay farmers to start using Aflasafe.
If farmers do not get higher prices for treated crops, some may not be willing to pay out of pocket for Aflasafe.
"The farmers take on the cost and yet they don’t always benefit in terms of market price," said Paula Bramel, IITA's deputy director.
"We have been going out and talking to farmers to see what they’d be willing to spend," said Collins, whose organization surveyed 2,300 farming families in eastern and western Kenya. “They would be prepared to pay if they could get a better price.”
Collins said there was a good chance they could do so because protecting maize from aflatoxin also results in a better product, less likely to be rejected by traders.
Fungus-free crops will also yield more grain. Collins said yield per unit could be doubled, tripled, or maybe even quadrupled.
Paula Bramel, IITA's deputy director, said there is currently no low-cost testing method in Kenya, and the government does not regularly test maize for aflatoxins. For the 70 percent of farmers in Kenya who trade informally, even government testing might provide little incentive to pay out of pocket for Aflasafe.
"The only way it will get to scale is if famers have a direct financial incentive," said Kola Masha, the managing director at Doreo Partners, a venture capital and consultancy firm tasked with developing a commercial strategy for Aflasafe.
Regulating the market is key for this to succeed, he said, because it is the only way farmers would be able to profit from compliance. The only other way to create incentive is to turn Aflasafe into a product that also increases yield, for example by bundling it with fertilizer, he said.
Masha said a "very aggressive outreach programme" would be the final step in ensuring farmers grow and consumers demand aflatoxin-free crops.
Farmers in Nigeria where testing is farther along are buying the treatment, but at subsidized rates, Masha told IRIN. There, partners are still working with donors to develop a large quantity of low aflatoxic maize and place it where people can access it inexpensively.
“If you get the price low enough the proportion of people that would buy it just because it’s good for them and their family will go up. But I question the sustainability of that,” he said. “Obviously the best approach is to go with a market-driven, market-led incentive system.”
Farmer Henry Zoka and his wife Patricia Maitha grow maize, beans, kale, and other crops on their farm 50km west of Nairobi. They are not sure if their maize has ever been infected with aflatoxin.
Zoka said the decision about whether or not to buy Aflasafe “would depend on the cost.” He said he would spend 1,000 shillings ($11.4) a season on the treatment. "We feel if we could get assistance it would be better."
But Aflasafe alone might not even be enough to combat the deadly fungus.
"There's no silver bullet in terms of a solution," said Collins. "That’s why you have to take a holistic approach."
Education, training, and communication about correct farming and storage practices are just as important as bio-control agents like Aflasafe, he said.