Using innovation to improve grain quality in Rwanda

Emile Ngaboyisonga wishes he didn’t need to travel so much, but as a grain trader who sources maize and soy 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.

An IFC project is working to change that. With support from the Private Sector Window of the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), the Rwanda Grain Markets project is supporting farmers and aggregators to affordably tackle widespread contamination, poor storage practices and limited access to affordable finance. The goal is for Ngaboyisonga and grain traders like him to source locally—ultimately creating a safe and affordable supply of high-quality maize that sustains the agricultural value chain throughout the country.

Photo: IFC/Simeon Uwiringiyeyesu

As part of the project, IFC is supporting two innovative local companies that work to decrease the incidence of aflatoxin, a mold-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 percent 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 percent of samples are too wet for safe storage and more than 90 percent 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.”

IFC and GAFSP are 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 percent 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 five percent of crops they process 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 tons per hours— 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 percent, while also ensuring that a safe product is making its way to consumers.

Photo: IFC/Simeon Uwiringiyeyesu

“We are trying to democratize 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 tons 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 originally published by IFC