Image by Charles Opiyo

The Kenya – Uganda food ban an opportunity to address food safety

The news that the government of Kenya had banned maize from Uganda because of high levels of mycotoxins was received with mixed reactions. Many people rushed to politicize the move and blame Kenya for the action. Such action is not new to Uganda as it has on some occasions, like in 2020, faced the challenge of her food exports such as maize and milk being rejected by her neighbour Kenya.

Like several people, I believe that the ban has implications for the economy as it will affect the export business. The livelihood of farmers who grow and supply this maize, without a doubt, will significantly be affected.

While I see the impacts of this decision, the underlying reason for the ban should critically be looked into. Food safety was the reason. According to the Kenyan government, the banned food is of bad quality, with high levels of aflatoxin and mycotoxins that pose serious health risks to its citizens. This is not a surprise, given that about 1.3 million Ugandans are reportedly diagnosed with foodborne diseases annually. FAO also estimates that 1 in 10 people in the world fall ill every year from eating contaminated food and that foodborne illnesses can also be fatal, causing an estimated 420, 000 deaths per year.

Food safety is a big management issue in the food chains starting at the point of production, through transportation, processing, packaging and storage until the final consumption stage. It entails how a farmer harvests his/her crops, stores and handles post-harvest activities. The Food process is a chain, so an error at any point is a risk to all of us.

Many initiatives aimed at addressing food insecurity focus not on all the food security continuum but mere physical availability. For example, addressing seeds, land and extension challenges often overlook intrinsic issues such as aflatoxin and mycotoxins management in food safety. What does it mean for citizens to have food if it is not safe for their health? Eating food is a case of what you put in what you get out. If you eat safe foods free from dangerous substances, the body gets better nourishment. Still, if the food is contaminated, then our bodies struggle and get sick with foodborne diseases including chronic and acute cases such as cancer.

The honest debate and attention, therefore, should now shift from merely having physical foods to the safety of these foods. With an increase in knowledge and level of consumers’ consciousness, food rejection due to bad quality is becoming both a local and international phenomenon.

Smallholder food producers are innocently producing unsafe foods, and their foods are increasingly getting rejected. This is consequently creating unemployment along the agri-food chains where a majority (over 60%) are directly employed and stopping them from earning incomes. Inevitably, this will widen both income and gender inequality because when family members fall get sick, their productivity declines, and women care burden increases.