Originally published on October 14, 2014.
Under a shady grove in eastern Kenya’s Kitui County, a group of smallholder farmers surrounds a man who has changed the way they think about preserving their harvests and feeding their families.
Michael Mukuthu, an engineer by trade and inventor by chance, listens to the farmers talk about how to improve the Anti-Aflatoxin and Grain Preservation (AGP) Apparatus, a device that he designed. The new device allows grain to breathe and stay dry in 90 kilogram sacks - the standard storage container used on the African continent.
Proper storage helps prevent the growth of aflatoxin, a highly-poisonous mold which thrives in damp conditions and spreads rapidly in dark, compacted areas. During times of drought, the quality of grains growing in the field is also compromised, making them more susceptible to developing aflatoxin once they are harvested.
Michael Mukuthu with his Anti-Aflatoxin and Grain Preservation Apparatus
So what inspired Michael to design the AGP Apparatus?
A few years ago, six of Michael’s friends were poisoned and later hospitalized after eating food contaminated with aflatoxin. Ingesting a high amount of aflatoxins in a very short time can cause liver damage, liver cancer, mental impairment, and even death. Long-term poisoning with aflatoxins can impair growth and development, as well as immune suppression and liver cancer.
“I also question whether my father died from aflatoxin poisoning,” said Michael.
These experiences drove Michael to come up with a solution that could prevent the spread of the aflatoxin spore in storage bags. He designed a simple, ingenious device that has proven to be “90 percent effective compared to other chemical treatments,” said Michael.
The farmers in the group affirm this, explaining that before they invested in the AGP, they used to dust their crops with a preservative chemical before storing them in sacks.
“I had to dust the grains every three months,” says Peter Syanu, a smallholder farmer who lives in the area.
Peter bought the AGP from Michael and used it to store one sack of grain for 8 months.
“I could have kept it in longer, but I was curious to see if it was working,”explains Peter. To his delight, it had kept the grain dry and aflatoxin-free. One major drawback farmers in the area report is the cost of the device. At KSh650, not all smallholders can afford one device per sack, since many smallholders harvest between seven and twenty sacks each growing season.
“If we had more capital, we could buy more [devices],” said Peter.
Another farmer, Gladys, confirms that she also uses the device.
“I stored this bag in the AGP for my family because I knew that the grains would be safer for my children to eat because they did not have the standard chemical treatments.”
About three meters in height, this cylindrical device works by keeping harvests cool and dry. It uses a center core that is filled with water, which acts as a coolant, while a surrounding wire mesh allows for air to circulate.
Michael advises farmers to place table salt at the bottom of the device to absorb any extra moisture. Layers of cardboard are placed strategically at different levels around the cylinder. “This helps to prevent the harvests from compacting,” he explains.
Thanks to this innovation, Michael is a man to watch. His device is drawing increasing interest from possible investors in Kenya’s agriculture sector. Earlier this year, Michael showcased the AGP alongside over 50 other cutting-edge innovations at the first-ever Eastern Africa Farmer-Led Innovation Fair (EAFIF). The EAFIF served as the flagship event for the Week on Agricultural Innovations in Africa (WAIA) and brought together individuals, groups of smallholder farmers as well as grassroots innovators from Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
This young innovator has sold the device to 100 farmers in his local community and wants to reach others in hopes of preventing aflatoxin poisoning.