Malawi’s toxic harvest
Groundnuts contaminated with harmful aflatoxins. Groundnuts are a main source of protein for Malawians and a vital cash crop. Groundnut and maize can become contaminated both before and after harvest. The mould that produces the toxin thrives in poor soils, during drought and when crops are stored in damp conditionsAlina Paul
A trader selling groundnuts in Mchinji, central Malawi. The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and national farmers association NASFAM tested groundnuts across the country. They found that nearly half the nuts in local markets had aflatoxin levels above European Union safety limitsAlina Paul
Aflatoxin can cause liver cancer, suppresses the immune system and hinders childrens growth. But the effects on children are not obvious to the eye without knowing a childs age. Malnourished children are particularly vulnerableAlina Paul
Staff at Matapila Health Centre treat malnourished children. They predict a spike in December when food stocks are at their lowest. This year, flooding and drought wrecked the harvest. These conditions have also increased the likelihood of aflatoxin contaminationAlina Paul
A baby being measured at Matapila clinic. Studies have found that stunted children have up to 40 per cent more aflatoxin in their blood than non-stunted children. Even eating just a small amount each day causes chronic poisoningAlina Paul
Trainer Alifosina Lirambwe demonstrates how to reduce contamination in groundnuts in Mchinji. Farmers are also shown ways to prevent mould developing as crops grow and are stored. Scientists are studying ways to reduce aflatoxin exposure and diversify diets to see if this reduces stuntingAlina Paul
Women dancing in Njati in central Malawi. A good way to spread best practice in villages is through song and dance. Communities are taught about the dangers of the aflatoxin and which farming techniques can prevent mouldAlina Paul
ICRISAT has created an affordable dipstick so crops can be tested for aflatoxin in the field before they end up on shelves or as animal feedAlina Paul
Peanut paste being made at the Nkhoma hospital for feeding malnourished children. Peanut samples are tested at ICRISATs lab to ensure it is free of Aflatoxin. Researchers are developing a new nutrient-rich recipe made with local pigeon pea, groundnut, finger millet and maize for malnourished children under fiveAlina Paul
A child is fed the new paste. Pigeon peas are rich in protein. Millet is rich in calcium, iron and folic acid. Groundnuts are rich in protein, fat, iron and zinc, and maize is rich in starchAlina Paul
One-and-a-half-year-old Falida was just six kilograms and 64 centimetres tall when she came for treatment in June. She is monitored weekly at the Matapila clinic and given doses of a peanut-based meal with added micronutrients to eat at home. By the end of August, Falida was nine kilograms and 75 centimetresAlina Paul
Boy eating pigeon peas and cereal. If this recipe is effective, Nkhoma Hospital wants to turn it into a treatment for malnutrition and aflatoxin poisoningAlina Paul
On top of this, much of the harvest will be contaminated with a toxin that can cause cancer and liver damage, and stunt children’s growth. Aflatoxins are produced by fungi that contaminate crops including groundnut, maize, sorghum and cassava. The stress of drought increases the risk of contamination. Throughout the developing world, it is estimated that around 4.5 billion people are exposed to aflatoxins.
In Malawi, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics found that nearly two-thirds of people tested were “highly exposed” to aflatoxins. They also discovered that 73 per cent of samples of groundnut powder were contaminated at levels above the European Union safety limit.
This photo gallery visits an area of Malawi where aflatoxin contamination is common and examines work to prevent contamination and reduce malnourishment among children.