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Stopping a silent killer February 12th, 2017 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Mycotoxins are poisons produced by common mold fungi. The best known examples are aflatoxins, produced by Aspergillus, which are of increasing concern worldwide because they contaminate  many types of stored foods, including groundnuts (peanuts), manioc, maize (corn) and chilli. Aflatoxins affect the health of people and animals and are powerful carcinogens if  enough is consumed. Like many successful poisons, aflatoxins are invisible and tasteless, so they are tricky to manage.

sorting groundnutsThe other week, I was in Chuquisaca, Bolivia, with Paul and Marcella from Agro-Insight, making a video for farmers on how to manage molds and reduce contamination of food. Part of the solution is surprisingly low-tech.

The first step is to recognize the molds. They look like a dark green powder, growing between the pink skin of the peanuts and the white layer of the shell around them. Farmer Dora Campos explains that the people in her village, Achiras, used to dismiss the molds, saying simply that the pods were rotten. Farmers would salvage the bad nuts by feeding them to pigs or chickens, and some people would even eat the rotten nuts. Thanks to what they’ve learned in recent years, the villagers now bury the spoiled peanuts.

Aspergillus survives on organic matter in the soil, within easy reach of peanut pods, for example. Antonio Medina showed us how he dried his peanut pods off the ground, as soon as they are harvested, to stop the mold contaminating them. This keeps the nuts as clean and dry as possible.

Like most fungi, Aspergillus needs water to thrive. Don Antonio shows us how the farmers pick through the whole pile of harvested peanuts, after drying, when the pods are cleaner and the bad ones are easier to spot. The farmers go through the harvest one pod at a time, discarding all of the spoiled or discolored pods. It takes time, but it is a technique that smallholders can use to produce a high-quality product, based on thoughtfulness and hard work.

Agronomist Edwin Mariscal is trying a simple solar dryer with many of the farmers he works with. Mr. Mariscal introduces us to Santiago Gutiérrez, who has built one of the dryers: a wooden frame raised off the ground and covered with a sheet of tough, sun-resistant plastic. Mr. Mariscal has been working with similar dryers in the field, with farmers for years. The dryers started as a metal version for drying peaches, but experience showed that the dryers worked just as well if they were made from wooden poles cut on the farm.

Don Santiago, and his wife Emiliana, explain that the dryer works beautifully. Peanuts dry even in the rain. The family can also put maize and chilli into the structure, to dry those foods free of aflatoxin.

You can keep deadly aflatoxins out of food by following a few simple principles, including harvesting on time (not too late, or the Aspergillus has more time to get into the pods). Keep the produce off the ground. Dry it out of the rain and remove the moldy pieces. Store produce in a cool, dry place, off the floor.


Thanks to FundaciĂłn Valles for information for this article, and for supporting our filming in the field. The video production was funded by the McKnight Foundation.

To watch the video

Watch and download the farmer training video: Managing aflatoxins in groundnuts during drying and storage

Sign up for the D-group at Access Agriculture to get an alert whenever new videos are posted on www.accessagriculture.org.


Por Jeff Bentley, 12 de febrero del 2017

Las micotoxinas son venenos producidos por mohos de hongos comunes. Los ejemplos más conocidos son aflatoxinas, producidas por Aspergillus, que son de interés actual porque contaminan muchas clases de alimentos almacenados, incluso manís (cacahuates), yuca, maíz y chile (ají). Las aflatoxinas afectan la salud de la gente y de los animales y son  cancerígenos poderosos si se consume lo suficiente. Como muchos venenos exitosos, las aflatoxinas son invisibles y sin sabor, entonces son difíciles de manejar.

maize, chilli and groundnut in solarLa otra semana, estuve en Chuquisaca, Bolivia, con Paul y Marcella de Agro-Insight, haciendo un video para agricultores sobre cĂłmo manejar mohos y reducir la contaminaciĂłn de los alimentos. Felizmente, parte de la soluciĂłn es el uso de tecnologĂ­a apropiada.

El primer paso es reconocer a los mohos. Parecen un polvo verdusco oscuro, que crece entre la piel roja del maní y la capa blanca de la cáscara. La agricultora Dora Campos explica que antes, la gente de su comunidad, Achiras, no daba importancia a los mohos, diciendo simplemente que  las vainas estaban podridas. Los agricultores rescataban los manís malos, dándoles de comer a sus chanchos o gallinas, y algunas personas hasta comían los granos podridos. Gracias a lo que han aprendido en los últimos años, ahora los comuneros saben enterrar los granos podridos.

Aspergillus sobrevive en la materia orgánica del suelo, al alcance de las vainas de maní, por ejemplo. Antonio Medina nos mostró cómo él secaba sus vainas en un toldo al cosecharlas, para evitar que el moho las contamine. Eso ayuda a mantener a los manís limpios y secos. Como la mayoría de los hongos, el Aspergillus necesita agua para vivir.

Don Antonio nos muestra cómo los agricultores escogen todos los manís cosechados, después de secarlos, cuando las vainas son más limpias y es más fácil ver las malas. Los agricultores revisan toda su cosecha, una vaina a la vez, descartando las vainas malas o descoloridas. Toma tiempo, pero es una técnica que los campesinos pueden usar para producir un producto de alta calidad, trabajando en forma consciente.

El Ing. Edwin Mariscal está probando un simple secador solar con varias familias. El Ing. Mariscal nos presenta a Santiago Gutiérrez, que ha construido uno de los secadores: una tarima de palos como una mesa, cubierto de una hoja de plástico fuerte y resistente al sol. El Ing. Mariscal ha trabajado con secadores parecidos en el campo, con agricultores, durante varios años. Los secadores empezaron como una versión metálica para secar duraznos, pero la experiencia mostró que los secadores funcionaban igual si se hacían de palos cortados en la zona.

Don Santiago, y su esposa Emiliana, explican que el secador funciona bien bonito. Los manís secan hasta en la lluvia. La familia también lo usa para secar maíz y ají, para evitar aflatoxina en ellos.

Se puede mantener los alimentos libres de las aflatoxinas letales siguiendo unos principios sencillos, como cosechar a tiempo (no muy tarde, o el Aspergillus tendrá más tiempo para entrar a las vainas). No secar el producto en el suelo. Evitar que entre la lluvia al producto y saque las piezas podridas. Almacene en un lugar seco y fresco, no en el piso.


La FundaciĂłn Valles nos proporcionĂł informaciĂłn para este artĂ­culo, y apoyĂł nuestra filmaciĂłn en el campo. Este video ha sido financiado por Programa Colaborativo de InvestigaciĂłn de Cultivos (CCRP) de la McKnight Foundation.

Para ver la video

El manejo de aflatoxinas en maní durante el secado  y en el almacenamiento

Puede inscribirse para el D-group en Access Agriculture para recibir una alerta cuando este video se suba al www.accessagriculture.org.


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Listening to what women don’t say July 17th, 2016 by

What women don’t say can be as important as what they do say. As I learned recently in Nigeria.

Cassava is a crop that is native to the Amazon Basin, but spread in early colonial times to much of tropical Africa. The hardy cassava is a short, woody shrub that can live for several years, thanks to its large roots which absorb water and nutrients, which helps the plant to survive the dry season.

Villagers love cassava because of its flexibility. People can harvest the plants one or few at a time, as the household needs food. But cassava can also be tricky. Once the roots are harvested they are fairly perishable and should be prepared into food fairly soon.

Moyo Olorunlagbe toasting gariDuring a recent fieldwork sponsored by IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture), we found that, in Southwest and North Nigeria, men grow much of the cassava and women detoxify it by making it into several products, especially one called gari.  To make gari, women peel huge piles of roots, one at a time, with a kitchen knife. Then the roots are grated in little motorized grills, and the mash is fermented in sacks, and then the moisture is squeezed out. Men may help with the grating and pressing out the moisture (often for a small fee). Then the women toast the mash into gari on a metal pan over a hot wood fire, continuously stirring the mash with a wooden paddle. The women also collect the firewood. Women can sell gari in village markets to buyers, usually women, who bulk the gari and take it to the cities.

unloading cassava from motorcycleTo get cassava to transform into gari, Nigerian women use several strategies. They grow some cassava; they get some from their husbands and they can buy roots in the village. In the photo, a man sells a motorcycle load of cassava to a neighbor who will process it. Within four to five days women can turn the cassava into a bit of cash—which they can spend or keep.

In the villages across Nigeria my colleagues and I interviewed the men and the women separately. Some of the men told us that, among other things, they needed what they called “ready markets,” meaning that the men wanted to be able to sell their cassava  roots raw, in local markets, for a profit.

In separate meetings, the women had plenty to say, but they never mentioned markets. On the other hand, the women wanted cassava that was easier to peel.

If we had interviewed men and women together, the women would not have bothered to contradict the men, when they asked for better markets for cassava.

The women did not ask for a ready market for cassava, because they already have one. They can always carry a basin full of gari down to the village market and sell it. Even landless women can buy cassava and transform it to make a living, working at home.

Men and women may even have conflicting interests. Higher prices for raw roots might benefit men, but could even harm the women, who buy the roots as raw material to make traditional foods like gari, fufu (with the consistency of mashed potatoes) and abacha (almost a kind of noodle).

In Nigeria, women are quietly feeding the nation; they are happy with the market just the way it is. That is why women don’t ask for ready markets. What women don’t say can be as important as what they do say. To learn women’s specific views and perspectives, we were reminded one more time that it is important to interview men and women in separate groups.


Tessy Madu and Olamide Olaosebikan held the meetings with the women. Adetunji Olarewaju facilitated the parallel meetings with the men.

The field work mentioned in this blog was part of the IITA lead Cassava Monitoring Survey project funded by institutions including RTB (CGIAR research program on Roots, Tuber and Bananas) and IITA.

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The sesame cleaner February 21st, 2016 by

At Agro-Insight we have the highest respect for farmer innovations. But you don’t need to be a farmer to invent appropriate technology for agriculture, as we saw last week in northern Uganda.

GADC (Gulu Agricultural Development Company) is a private firm that buys produce from farmers around Gulu and Kitgum in Northern Uganda. They export cotton, organic sesame, chili, and a few other commodities. Robert Ogwang is one of GADC’s extension supervisors. On Saturday 6 February 2016 he invited me to go along with him on a trip to buy commodities.

Our first stop was to visit Charles Olanya, a farmer who also works for GADC, buying sesame and sharing new ideas with farmers in Lugwak village, Dibulyac parish, just a few kilometers from the border with South Sudan. Charles went to university, and although he didn’t finish, he speaks English well. Charles earns a commission on the products he buys, so he has a vested interest in seeing that the neighboring farmers produce more.

forcing sesame through top screenRobert unloaded a sesame cleaner, made from wooden boards and two metal screens. Two women were working for Charles, winnowing the sesame. Because sesame grains are so small, it is difficult to separate them from the sand that inevitably gets into any crop that is produced in an open field. With the cleaner, the sesame passes through the top screen, leaving behind stones and trash. The dirt falls through the second, fine meshed screen. The cleaned sesame comes out between the two meshes. Charles went to work with the screen immediately. It was clear that he was happy with it.

I talked to Wilfred Kamulegeya, the GADC agronomist who invented the cleaner. Until a couple of years ago, the sesame was coming in from the field with 6% sand grains. That may not sound like much, but the company processed so much sesame that by the end of one season they had 200 tons of sand left over, which was difficult to dispose of.

the first large cleanerWilfred started to create the mini cleaner by working with a sesame cleaner made in Turkey, but it was too complicated. He then made a cleaner with no moving parts which he and a few workers started to use in 2014. They got faster the more they practiced. When they cleaned 150 bags in a day in a single day they were so proud they wrote the number on the front of the implement. After a while they could clean 800 bags a day.

Wilfred then made smaller versions and in January 2015 distributed them to some of the farmers who buy commodities in the villages for GADC. The new cleaner is simple to make, and it costs about $100. GADC gave 47 of them to their field staff, and are now making more, so that every farmer who buys for the company will have a cleaner. The company rewards the farmer-buyers with a premium price for turning in sesame that is 98% pure. At their plant in Kitgum, the company further cleans the little grains to 99.5% purity.

Farmers aren’t the only ones who innovate; buyers can also invent new technology. But no matter who invents the novelty, the proof of concept is that farmers use it.

When rural people reject a material item they can always find a use for it, so I wouldn’t have been overly surprised to see the new sesame cleaners being used to roost chickens or dry dishes. But that didn’t happen.

lined up to sell sesameEverywhere I went that week, I saw farmers using the new sesame cleaner. In the village of Opoki, I visited another farmer, Obalim Morris Cankura, who also doubles as a buyer and an extensionist. A line of farmers were patiently waiting their turn to sift their sesame on the new cleaner. Morris showed me the pile of dirt they had cleaned from the sesame during the day; the mini-cleaner is an efficient device.

In agriculture, inventions by outsiders are usually half baked. But this innovation seemed right on. An agronomist with a love for mechanical engineering had created a new tool that farmers are actually using. Commodity buyers and processers, like Wilfred, are practical people, with a job to do, just like farmers. Like academic researchers, the processers also have access to certain outside ideas and materials (like precision metal screening). Academic researchers would improve their inventions if they were closer to their audience.

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The juice mobile September 27th, 2015 by

Some forty years ago, mobile services were common across Europe. In my home village, Kieldrecht, in northern Belgium, I remember how a dairy farmer had his regular clients to whom he delivered bottles of fresh milk. The service was pretty sophisticated. Varied numbers and sizes of bottles were delivered on people’s doorsteps on different days of the week, depending on what the clients wanted. Once a month people paid their bill. They would pay cash (after a short, friendly chat), or if they were away at work, they would leave the coins in an enveloppe on the doorstep for the milk man to collect. A quality, tailor-made service it was.

Early mornings, two competing bakers delivered bread to their customers. My granddad, who lived by himself on his family farm, was happy to pay a few cents more for his bread, while receiving some friendly words or a joke from the baker’s son.

But society has changed and most of those village services are long gone. Supermarkets and bread machines at the corner of streets have replaced the personalised services. Services have become more expensive and today’s customers no longer want to devote as much time to producing and processing food as our parents’ and grandparents’ generations did. But with an increased consciousness of healthy food and a desire from consumers to reconnect with food producers, some old services such as home deliveries have come back, while new initiatives such as farm shops and subscriptions to weekly vegetable boxes have become increasingly popular.

Last week I experienced a delightful local initiative to save some of our food and farming heritage in Limburg, the northeastern province of Belgium. Limburg is known for its bicycle culture, greenery and orchards, all of which contribute to local tourism and the local economy.

Unfortunately, family orchards have suffered from the same lack of time mentality of our generation; many orchards with tall, old varieties have been abandonned with few new ones being planted.

8802 A mobile service 1To maintain the genetic diversity of old fruit varieties the National Orchard Foundation established a genebank with over 3,000 old and valuable local fruit varieites. Besides their own orchards that serve as research, demonstration and training sites, the foundation has also successfully convinced people like my late father-in-law to plant local fruit varieties.

Over the past thirty years hundreds of people across the province and country have gradually re-established fruit gardens with old varieties. Until 2014, one could even get subsidies for planting tall fruit varieties.

“But how to keep y8831 A mobile service 2oung families motivated to plant and maintain fruit trees? Money to buy trees isn’t the bottleneck, but time to maintain an orchard and process the fruit are. As fruit spoils fairly quickly, why would one bother to pick a few hundred kilograms of fruit?” my wife, Marcella, asked herself.

8874 A mobile service 3Until she learned about the “Juice Mobile”. On specific days throughout the fruit harvesting season (September to early November) the juice mobile comes to certain locations to process small batches of fruit from family orchards into fresh fruit juice.

The juice mobile is operated by the National Orchard Foundation in collaboration with its sister organisation NBSW (Natuur en Boomgaarden Sociale Werkplaats). During the harvesting season, the crew of three people works long days. On a single day, they press up to 5 tons of apples, pasteurise them, and package it all in 3-liter or 5-liter sterile bags, neatly placed into cardboard boxes. The orchard owners go back home with all the juice from their fruit, and pay 1.25 Euro per liter for the entire service.

8844 A mobile service 4So we called upon Marcella’s sisters, brother, nephews and nieces. One day we picked some 600 kilograms of apples, and the next day brought them to the juice mobile. In an hour and a half we had over 400 liters of fresh juice.

The dry fruit pulp along with the rotten and overripe apples that are sorted out at the beginning of the conveyer belt are taken to a nearby farm to turn into biogas.

They were two rewarding days: being out in the fresh air, picking the family’s fruit trees, chatting with other people from the community. For a full year, the entire family will fondly recall that Marcella’s dad planted those old apple varieties.

Family ties and conservation of old fruit varieties can strengthen each other, with a little help from modern agro-processing.

Related blog stories on biodiversity conservation

Bolivian peanuts

Forgotten vegetables

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Going bananas August 9th, 2015 by

It is one thing to organize smallholders, and quite another to tell them what to do, as we see in this story of how commercial banana growing in Bolivia succeeded and failed at the same time.

The rain forest of central Bolivia, in an area called the Chapare or “the Tropics of Cochabamba” was home to Amazonian peoples like the Yuqui and the Yuracaré until the 1960s, when Bolivia started an ambitious colonization program, supported by USAID, to send Andean peoples to clear the forest and grow crops. One of the most successful of these crops was coca, the raw material for cocaine. A few coca bushes had been grown in the Chapare since the 1700s, and possibly for a long time before that. But that coca was used to make a stimulating chew. By the 20th century coca was entering the global narcotics trade, as cocaine.

Pushed out by drought and closing tin mines, colonists flooded into the Chapare and the coca supply blossomed. This was too much for the US government which in 1983 started a new policy based on the big stick of police repression of coca, and the carrot of “Alternative Development” which meant growing other crops, like bananas and peach palm. USAID built all-weather, cobblestone roads, and organized some of the colonists in associations to grow bananas.

In her 2004 book on the School of the Americas (a US military training camp for Latin American soldiers), anthropologist Leslie Gill discusses Alternative Development. On page 194 she wrote:

“Replacing coca with bananas is in fact a peculiar proposition. In the Chapare there are no stable roads or packing facilities, and technological assistance through the alternative crop development program is rudimentary or non-existent. To believe that peasants of a remote inland region could become competitive exporters is therefore a difficult stretch of the imagination.”

Yet agriculture thrives on imagination, and even at the time Gill’s book was published, the packing sheds were up and running. Gill is an expert on soldiers, not farmers.

Going bananas 1Up to now, all of the association members have access to a packing shed. Little hand rails running from the groves to the sheds make it easier to carry the banana bunches to be packed. The members own their own individual patches of bananas, planted next to each other in large contiguous blocks, near the packing sheds.

If the bananas were real, so was the police repression of coca, and much more brutal. President Evo Morales tells that when he was a young, local leader and a coca grower, the narcotics police (UMOPAR, trained by the US DEA—Drug Enforcement Administration) took him to the woods and beat him senseless, and left him there. He would have died if his friends had not gone looking for him, he told historian Martín Sivak. Other settlers have told me similar stories, about being beaten and robbed by UMOPAR.

The coca growers responded to the repression by organizing roadblocks that shut down all traffic in and out of the region, blocking the main industrial city of Santa Cruz from the government in La Paz, but incidentally forcing the banana growers to watch their fruit rot on the plants.

aa Going bananas 2When Evo became president of Bolivia in 2006; he threw out the DEA, tamed UMOPAR, and in 2008 forced USAID to close its operations in the Chapare, but that was for political not agronomic reasons. The fruit growers’ associations continued, and the extension work to support them was taken over by the local municipal governments, which have always been allied with the coca growers and with Evo. The national government created a program to inspect the bananas, train growers, and certify that the bananas were disease and insect-free, which also eases exports.

The FAO estimates that Bolivia produced 210,000 tons of bananas in 2012. Exports in 2013 were worth $27 million (mostly by truck, to Argentina). Bananas are a success story, but they haven’t eliminated coca, as the US government hoped. Coca and bananas have now found a peaceful coexistence in the Chapare. The local municipalities are intimately tied to their peasant constituents; the mayors are farmers themselves. The local people easily saw that new crops created a diverse, healthier local economy. They opted for bananas and coca, not instead of.

Further reading

Blanes, José 1983 De los Valles al Chapare: Estrategias Familiares en un Contexto de Cambios. Cochabamba: CERES. 191 pp.

Gill, Lesley 2004 The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press. 281 pp.

Jones, James C. 1990 “The Chapare: Farmer Perspectives on the Economics and Sociology of Coca Production.” Binghampton, New York: SARSA/IDA. 86 pp.

Sivak, MartĂ­n 2008 Jefazo: Retrato ĂŤntimo de Evo Morales. Santa Cruz, Bolivia: El PaĂ­s. 336 pp.

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