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Private sector powering an Aflasafe™ revolution in Nigeria to fight aflatoxin in food
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Private sector powering an Aflasafe™ revolution in Nigeria to fight aflatoxin in food

May 18, 2019

Harvestfield Industries joins hands with R&D partners and government to make aflatoxin history in Nigeria’s food and food products – smallholder farmers hold the key

Nigeria is very special for Aflasafe, as the country of its birth. And when it comes to commercialising Aflasafe, Africa’s most populous nation can simply not be ignored. With a population 200 million strong whose key foods include groundnuts and maize, commercialisation studies put Nigeria right at the top of the totem pole, as Aflasafe’s largest potential market in Africa. And so, we returned to our motherland to check in on how the commercialisation of Aflasafe™ – the product specially tailored for Nigeria to tackle deadly aflatoxin in food – is faring under the astute stewardship of Harvestfield Industries Ltd, the IITA-appointed Aflasafe manufacturer and distributor in Nigeria. So, get that cup of tea or coffee and pull up a seat to tune in to the animated roundtable discussion we recently had with Harvestfield management around this revolutionary topic that is a literally matter of life and death – in Nigeria as elsewhere.

Nigeria rising up to the aflatoxin challenge! Presenting the formidable Harvestfield force ‘fomenting’ and spearheading an anti-aflatoxin revolution in Nigeria, with Aflasafe™ as the surprise ‘weapon’ in its arsenal. At the roundtable discussion at Harvestfield’s company’s headquarters in Lagos, Nigeria, was the entire top tier of Harvestfield’s management. Here, we have Martins Awofisayo (2nd right), Managing Director; Abdullahi A Ndarubu (extreme right), Chief Operating Officer; Wole Ilori (2nd left), General Manager, Sales and Technical; and Opeyemi Ogedengbe (extreme left), Senior Technical Representative for Aflasafe™. This diversity of discussants and plural perspectives made for a very deep and rich conversation. But Harvestfield seems to also have spoken in other non-verbal ways, for those discerning enough to pick their cue. Are you? Is it by coincidence that the MD is sporting Aflasafe blue, we wonder?

Please tell us briefly about Harvestfield

Harvestfield is 19 years old, founded in 2000, primarily for the importation and marketing of agricultural chemicals, as well as malaria control products. But we have since gone into local production, and we now have an agrochemical factory which is the first of its kind in Africa, and also the one with the largest capacity. Our core competence has always been in providing agro-inputs to farmers, as well as equipment and seed. These include high-quality agrochemicals, public-health products, spray equipment and improved seeds. Our vision is to make Harvestfield a one-stop shop for farmers, in support of Nigeria’s food sufficiency, security and safety.

Our strength is our extensive network: we are present in all of Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones … Aflasafe is a quality post-R&D all-natural product from a trusted international partner that fits right into our made-in-Nigeria business strategy and approach

We work with many research and development partners who support Harvestfield by providing innovative products and technical know-how, in our bid to maintain our position as the one-stop shop for agricultural inputs in Nigeria. This is how we came to work with IITA who appointed Harvestfield as the exclusive manufacturer and distributor of Aflasafe in Nigeria. We hope to continue working with IITA and expand our relationship to other R&D products ready for commercialisation beyond Aflasafe.

Our strength is our extensive network: we are present in all of Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones with 28 warehouses and offices, concentrated in the predominantly agricultural areas where our farm inputs are most needed. We have the largest network in inputs supply.

Among the partners we work with is the federal government, to whom we’re a major supplier of top-quality farm inputs for farmers nationwide, particularly over the last two years.

What is Harvestfield’s motivation for manufacturing and distributing Aflasafe?

Aflasafe is a quality post-R&D all-natural product from a trusted international partner that fits right into our made-in-Nigeria business strategy and approach, in our bid for a solid foundation built on tried and tested solid products. We cannot continue to rely on importation. Our motivation for Aflasafe is beyond making profit: we want to contribute to agricultural innovation and technology transfer as we live the maxim ‘Buy Nigeria, Build Nigeria’.

We are a solution-provision company. Where there is a challenge, we seek the solution. Aflatoxin in Nigeria is a problem, well-recognised by both the federal and state governments, and Aflasafe is amongst the solutions. By solving this problem, there are direct health and economic benefits for the people, in addition to food safety and enhanced trade.

What is your experience so far with Aflasafe?

It is clear to us now – as it was from the beginning – that Aflasafe needs an expert and experienced hand in Nigeria, which is what Harvestfield brings to the table. Had we not been aware of this need for an old hand in Nigeria and patience and persistence, our first attempts would have failed. Our country, Nigeria, is a peculiar one! Nigerians generally do not easily embrace change and innovations, even when good for them. We know this from our experience in the Roll Back Malaria campaign. With this experience that taught us the power of perseverance and persistence, and knowing our country as we do, we are aware that Aflasafe is not a product of today but of tomorrow, and we’re not expecting a rapid return on our considerable investment in the product. Instead, we keep our eyes on the long-term prize of aflatoxin-safe food, more money for farmers and rejuvenating groundnut exports, meaning they must of course meet international safety standards on aflatoxin. This is why we believe in Aflasafe. We are committed to making it succeed.

Aflasafe is a key ingredient with a huge role to play in the federal government’s Green Alternative initiative that seeks to diversify from oil as the economic mainstay

Aflasafe is a key ingredient with a huge role to play in the federal government’s Green Alternative initiative that seeks to diversify from oil as the economic mainstay by providing non-oil economic alternatives. We have no doubt that over the next two to three years, Nigeria will have a big Aflasafe-driven success story, especially for groundnuts. But also for maize: previously, it was unheard of for Nigeria to import maize, but we’re now importing maize since we’re no longer self-sufficient. Another reason for maize imports is the notion that locally grown maize has a lot of aflatoxin – a problem that Aflasafe would solve. Harvestfield remains deeply committed to Aflasafe, and Nigeria is a good test-case for IITA. Success in Nigeria guarantees success anywhere else in Africa!

Any successes now nonetheless?

Our first year of operation was not about sales but rather a steep learning curve on the appropriate strategy for successfully marketing this new product. With a good strategy and ample awareness creation coupled with the support we’re enjoying from all the stakeholders, Aflasafe has a very bright future … We are glad that the government is in the dialogue on the problem of aflatoxin and the Aflasafe solution

Certainly! But bearing in mind what we mentioned earlier that Aflasafe is not a quick-sales quick-profits product that will give us money right away. Nevertheless, when we call this revolutionary product a product of the future, we are not talking about the long-term future either, but rather, the near future, within the next two to three years, not five. Our first year of operation was not about sales but rather a steep learning curve on the appropriate strategy for successfully marketing this new product. With a good strategy and ample awareness creation coupled with the support we’re enjoying from all the stakeholders, Aflasafe has a very bright future. It can become a household name and a fast-moving product, since it addresses a clear and felt need. And this has in fact already started. The big players in the food industry, agricultural produce and export trade are already well aware of this need and are interested in  Aflasafe. Food and beverage giants like Nestlé and Guinness are among the Aflasafe clients that come to mind. We find this very encouraging, and believe that by next year, we’ll be telling a different story with better results. We’re primarily working with the private sector, but we expect that the government too will come on board as one of the big Aflasafe promoters. And we are glad that the government is in the dialogue on the problem of aflatoxin and the Aflasafe solution. It’s just that government processes, as we all know, take time.

Any additional challenges?

Our challenges are not institutional. Our real challenge is the farmers, who are the first actors in the Aflasafe revolution. How do we convince them on the need for them to use Aflasafe when the market offers no rewards for this? Why should they then incur costs for this additional input? What farmers readily buy are products that will increase their yield, for obvious reasons. As such, owing to market forces, smallholder farmers who account for 60% of the farming sector, are of course much more interested in quantity than quality. Aflasafe is a product that improves quality, not quantity. Moreover, the quality improvement is invisible, as aflatoxin presence or absence cannot be detected with the naked eye. But we’re coming up with a programme for later this year – still in the formative stages now – that will encourage farmers to invest in aflatoxin protection. The most efficient way for us to do this will by working with bulk buyers of farm produce – aggregators as we call them – who would invest in routinely testing for aflatoxin as part of their quality assurance. This will in turn encourage the farmers they buy product from to  use Aflasafe for protection from aflatoxin. We’d also team up with the government and its regulatory mechanisms to bring farmers under this anti-aflatoxin umbrella programme, which will also fit into the government’s Zero Rejection initiative on Nigeria’s agricultural products. We’re hopeful now that large-scale farmers are coming on board as Aflasafe users. Also, through the outgrower schemes run by the food-processing industry and agricultural commodity bulk buyers where they contract smallholder farmers and are now requiring aflatoxin-safe produce, smallholder farmers too will follow suit. But regardless, and ahead of the umbrella programme to come, we continue with our nationwide awareness campaigns, primarily targeting smallholder farmers. We will resume our awareness campaigns again this year.

To help us tackle the challenge of engaging smallholder farmers in the fight against aflatoxin in food, we’re talking to the federal government on the aflatoxin challenge from two angles – economic and food safety. We’re very pleased the government is listening to us. The government is itself exploring how to regulate and enforce the aflatoxin safety standard which is 10 parts per billion. They plan to do this through pre-existing farmer structures such as farmer associations and cooperatives, and by providing farmers with proven anti-aflatoxin solutions such as Aflasafe. This would ensure that farmers do not suffer and are not penalised for the regulatory steps taken when the government does aflatoxin testing during harvest time at designated government collection points. Aflatoxin-compliant farmers would have nothing to worry about. That way, the government would finally be taking this aflatoxin bull by the horns. But first, the government must ensure that the solution to aflatoxin – in this case Aflasafe – is indeed available and readily and reasonably accessible to farmers. That’s why our partnership with the federal government is so critical for the distribution of Aflasafe as an effective and proven farm input to fight aflatoxin. But it also calls for subsidies so that farmers would at first be buying Aflasafe for next to nothing. This will greatly encourage and spur use and adoption. And when coupled with the government itself rejecting aflatoxin-laced produce and therefore setting the pace, Aflasafe use will become routine with no further enforcement or regulation required, as it would be self-regulating. This is the conversation we’ve been having with the government. It is our hope that it will result in concerted and concrete action that will keep Nigeria’s food safe from aflatoxin. Smallholder farmers are a crucial cornerstone and the entry point and foundation in the fight against aflatoxin. Unless and until they come on board, as a nation, we labour in vain.

While indeed the toxin-binders may bind the aflatoxin in the grain, they’re a catch-all dragnet that does not discriminate good from bad: toxin-binders ensnare not only the bad poison but also trap much-needed micro-nutrients, thereby automatically lowering the quality of the feed produced using toxin-binders. This will of course not happen with all-natural Aflasafe

Besides smallholder farmers, our other challenge are feed millers and how to convince them to use Aflasafe-protected grain which is guaranteed to be aflatoxin-safe from the outset. We approached them last year but run into a brick wall: they use toxin-binders, and – even as most of them are actually aware of Aflasafe – they are not interested in using Aflasafe since the toxin-binders work for them. What we’re trying to persuade them to see are the plain facts – that while indeed the toxin-binders may bind the aflatoxin in the grain, they’re a catch-all dragnet that does not discriminate good from bad: toxin-binders ensnare not only the bad poison but also trap much-needed micro-nutrients, thereby automatically lowering the quality of the feed produced using toxin-binders. This will of course not happen with all-natural Aflasafe. We’re trying to encourage feed millers to shift from toxin-binders to Aflasafe’s anti-aflatoxin protection, but they have still not come on board. We all know that changing mind-sets is no easy task. It therefore appears that this shift will not happen on its own and would require the intervention of regulatory authorities, as well as expansive and sustained awareness campaigns targeting feed customers and livestock keepers and consumers. We’re currently at an impasse with feed millers since they feel they’re doing alright with the toxin-binders. We, on the other hand, believe that they can do better. Because while toxin-binders are a sort of solution, they’re not the best solution given nutrient-binding. But we also discovered one other revealing fact that though unstated, probably holds the key to explaining why feed millers are themselves so bound to toxin-binders. The bulk of the feed millers are also merchandisers or manufacturers of the very binders they use, hence there is an inherent conflict of interest that explains a lot – business interests that Aflasafe would threaten, or bring to a close altogether. We hope to overcome this challenge by converting feed millers from being merchants of toxin-binders to merchants of Aflasafe, since, after all, toxin-binders are for them a side enterprise, not their core business.

One last challenge – and this one is a good one – is that we’re really under pressure from some of our big customers like Guinness to allow the use of Aflasafe for sorghum, more commonly referred to in Nigeria as Guinea corn, and for other crops that are also susceptible to aflatoxin, besides groundnut and maize for which Aflasafe is registered. This could be a growth area for IITA to consider. Unlike the feed millers, large-scale food and beverage processors represent a market segment of clients – few in number but large in terms of volume – who are very quality- and safety-conscious, because their brands and reputation are primarily premised on these twin pillars. We should work with them to meet this unmet potential demand for Aflasafe beyond groundnuts and maize. Potentially, this demand could be very large, given the industrial quantities of sorghum that brands like Guinness require on a regular and permanent basis, and therefore as a guaranteed market.

What other plans do you have for the future?

We will take a three-pronged market segmentation approach in marketing Aflasafe, targeting multinationals and large-scale farmers as a single market segment, as well as the federal government and smallholder farmers as the other two market segments. Each segment will require its own different approach.

While aflatoxin is a clear concern that the federal government is aware of, we regretfully cannot say the same for most state governments. This is why we’ve strategically chosen to first partner with the government at federal level, but this will definitely cascade to state government level for implementation … At the moment, the only government client for Aflasafe has been the federal government. No state government has purchased Aflasafe yet

On the manufacturing side, we have a contract with IITA’s Business Incubation Platform for interim toll manufacturing at IITA headquarters in Ibadan, Oyo State, to enable us meet the demand and targets for this year. As the market demand grows, we shall build our own modular – meaning scaleable – Aflasafe factory at Ogun State. We anticipate doing this in the near future, likely before the end of 2019. It is only the innoculum that we will continue to obtain from IITA. Everything else that goes into the production of Aflasafe will be sourced and done by Harvestfield. That way, and with the modular factory we’ll be constructing, we’ll rapidly be able to build up and mobilise the capacity needed to meet anticipated growth in demand for Aflasafe. We plan to raise production from the 2,640 tonnes per year that IITA is currently producing, to about 7,500 tonnes per year, through the modular approach. Alongside ramping up production, we will continue to sustain market development activities.

And while aflatoxin is a clear concern that the federal government is aware of, we regretfully cannot say the same for most state governments. This is why we’ve strategically chosen to first partner with the government at federal level, but this will definitely cascade to state government level for implementation. Of note are two key states that have shown interest in tackling aflatoxin – Jigawa and Kaduna. We trust this will translate into concrete action on the ground. The National Agricultural Council meets every year, and this is the forum where both federal and state policies are formulated. Fighting aflatoxin is to be on the agenda of the next Council meeting. Only the federal government can make that push. These Council meetings are attended by all the country’s Commissioners of Agriculture. The federal government, through its warehouses in every state in the nation, plans to distribute Aflasafe to farmers in all corners of Nigeria. These federal warehouses that are at state level are called ‘greenhouses’. The structure and muscle behind the greenhouses comprise each state’s Director of Agriculture who’s deployed there by the federal government, and the extension officers who serve the farmers in the state. This is why it’s strategic to engage with the government at federal level, if we’re to achieve the goal of reaching and convincing smallholder farmers to use Aflasafe. At the moment, the only government client for Aflasafe has been the federal government. No state government has purchased Aflasafe yet. This is not necessarily because state governments are not interested. Rather, they see fighting aflatoxin as a federal responsibility. We trust that as we continue with our awareness campaigns, this perception will change, and state governments too will join the Aflasafe revolution, with the state governments as the generals, and their smallholder farmers as the foot soldiers.

Any final notes?

Nigeria is very slow to action. By this, we mean, not the people but rather the government and its intricate and elaborate processes as is the case for almost all governments anywhere. But the good thing is that once the government buys in and moves to action, it creates big opportunities not only in Nigeria but right across Africa, given Nigeria’s economic prominence in the continent.

Nigeria is very slow to action. By this, we mean, not the people but rather the government and its intricate and elaborate processes as is the case for almost all governments anywhere. But the good thing is that once the government buys in and moves to action, it creates big opportunities not only in Nigeria but right across Africa, given Nigeria’s economic prominence in the continent.

Unlike groundnuts, we’ve had more difficulty with maize. Perhaps the market resistance for Aflasafe as a new technology for protecting maize as feed and food could probably be because our staple foods nationwide are not drawn from maize, as tends to be the case in Eastern and Southern Africa where maize-based foods abound. Here, maize is mostly concentrated in the north. East Africa has also recorded and reported health issues and deaths that directly arise from aflatoxin. But this has been much more muted in Nigeria, and it is only recently that some of these records are beginning to appear in the public domain. Still, the reach of the message on the dangers of aflatoxin is very narrow and shallow thus far. So, when we talk to our target audiences about aflatoxin and the health risks it poses – including cancer – we face an uphill task, and they are dismissive and remain unconvinced since they do not believe us on these dangers and think we’re only after product-push and profits. They sceptically ask us: “What are you talking about? I’ve been eating this maize since before your parents were born! It has done me no harm. You just want to sell your product!” This underscores why the government needs to step in before the situation gets completely out of hand. And also make the business case for attacking aflatoxin in Nigeria by presenting Aflasafe‘s value proposition to farmers since there is no single Nigerian farmer that only grows food to eat. They also want to sell some of it. If their aflatoxin-laced produce is rejected at market, they will be the ones looking for Aflasafe, and not the other way round.

The government will be the game-changer and commander-in-chief if this Aflasafe revolution in Nigeria is to succeed. It must reject produce that fails to meet the aflatoxin safety standard right at farm-gate level

The government will be the game-changer and commander-in-chief if this Aflasafe revolution in Nigeria is to succeed. The government will only need to take this action just once, in one season, and the rest of it – all the other pieces – will naturally fall into place. The government must reject produce that fails to meet the aflatoxin safety standard right at farm-gate level. No direct government enforcement action is required for aflatoxin-conscious large-scale producers. Not only are they already addressing aflatoxin voluntarily using Aflasafe, most of them like Nestlé and Guinness are actually increasing their Aflasafe-protected acreage, having seen for themselves with independent testing how effective Aflasafe is in fighting aflatoxin. This is part of the reason why we have a higher Aflasafe production target this year, from slightly above 400 tonnes last year, to a minimum of 1,000 tonnes in 2019, even as smallholder farmers are yet to come on board in significant numbers. Those farmers that do so early will be well ahead of the curve.


EDITORS NOTE: And there you have it! We’ve heard from the manufacturers and distributors of Aflasafe in Nigeria on their firm commitment to tame the menace of aflatoxin, even as they are aware this will be a slow process with few – if any – returns on investment in the early years. Over then to the federal government, where action has already begun at the very highest echelons as Africa’s second-largest economy – a veritable giant – joins other nations in the Aflasafe revolution to protect Africa’s food from deadly aflatoxin. We hope to next bring you news on pioneer Aflasafe-using smallholder farmers in Nigeria, in their own words.

 

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