According to the World Health Organisation, 91 million people in Africa fall sick and 137,000 die every year due to food-borne illnesses.
Diarrhoeal diseases account for 70 percent of foodborne diseases in the region, with non-typhoidal salmonella, which is often contracted from contaminated eggs and poultry, causing the most number of deaths – 32,000 a year. Ten percent of the overall foodborne disease burden in the continent is caused by the pork tapeworm.
The problem is so dire that food safety was selected as one of the parameters to measure in the biennial review framework, as discussed by Josefa Sacko, the Commissioner of Rural Economy and Agriculture at the African Union Commission.
“It was seen as important to have food safety and safety issues as among the indicators to watch in the biennial review process. This is because good health has a great impact in the economic development of any region,” said Ambassador Sacko at the 2018 African Green Revolution Forum in Kigali, Rwanda.
The economic impact as a consequence of poor food handling runs into billions of dollars, with the continent, for instance, losing $670m every year due to aflatoxin contamination.
“The problem is very complex. Aflatoxin is the only micro-toxin that happens pre and post-harvest. Unfortunately, African countries have limited ability to tackle it as the solutions against the toxin are not well developed,” said Amare Ayalew, the Programme Manager in charge of the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa at the AUC.
Such contamination propensity, such as that brought about by aflatoxin on Africa’s food items, is what contributes to the reduced marketability of products grown in the continent.
“The farmers bear the greatest risk of any other job on earth, because they can spend time producing items that may never reach the market,” said Josette Sheeran, UN Special Envoy for Haiti and President & CEO, The Asia Society.
“The challenges presented by contamination are insurmountable and quite often discourage farmers from looking for export markets, owing to the stringent requirements out there, but they can be overcome by raising the standards of the food handling and safety measures,” said Sheeran.
Dr. Abdullahi Aliyu Ndarubu, the Chief Operating Officer of Nigeria’s Harvestfield Industries Limited, recognising Sheeran’s concerns, recommends a partnership between private businesses and government entities in seeking solutions for the problems.
“While the government has a great capacity to raise awareness, the private sector can identify opportunities that are related to the problems and offer solutions that benefit both the farmers while making business sense for them,” said Ndarubu.
Similarly, Dr. Betty Chinyamunyamu, the CEO of the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM) recommends that smallholder farmers are involved in the search for solutions to their problems.
“The issues of food safety should not only be considered from a marketing perspective; smallholder farmers are also consumers, and there is need for them to be provided with technologies that that help them create good products for the market as well as own use,” said Chinyamunyamu.
To sum it up, Dr. Chinyamunyamu and her peers proposed that more investment be dedicated to food security and quality standards, as one of the ways to make farm produce from Africa attractive to buyers all around the world.