A wooden box sits inside Room 182, a control environment lab at the University of Kentucky. The box is about 10 feet high, 10 feet wide and 24 feet long. And on an afternoon in mid-April, I’m standing in the box with agriculture engineers Akinbode Adedeji and Francis Agbali. Adedeji is a professor at UK and Agbali is one of his doctoral students. One of the shorter sides of the box is made up entirely of a powerful fan; Agbali turns it on and the temperature inside immediately drops.
“Right now we’re in a big wind tunnel, which is like a simulator. So in this tunnel we can simulate wind speed depending on what we want,” Adedeji said.
This huge box may be sitting in a lab in Lexington, but the engineers hope to turn this wind simulator into working wind turbines 6,000 miles away in Nigeria, where both engineers are from.
Adedeji and Agbali want to give Nigerian farmers an easy way to prevent a prevalent problem: aflatoxin contamination. The contamination, spurred by fungi, has global economic and health effects. It happens everywhere around the world, but aflatoxin contamination is compounded by at least three three things in many developing countries — hot and humid weather, lack of access to technology to detect toxins, and a lack of electricity to dry grains and reduce the risk of contamination.
Adedeji and Agbali think a simple, easy-to-build wind turbine could be an easy fix.
Ibadan, Nigeria, is a few hours northeast of the coastal city of Lagos, and is one of Nigeria’s nerve centers for grain research.
On a gray Friday, dozens of men and women wearing colorful scarves, dresses and shirts are bagging corn in tall, white and yellow plastic bags at the city’s Elekaara Market. Others push rusty carts used to transport the corn. Nearby, the bed of a blue pickup truck overflows with stacked green-leafed corn. The market is lined with sheds holding 200-pound bags of corn neatly lined up against the walls.
Grain merchant Kabiru Sanusi keeps his maize in one of those dark, hollow sheds. Sanusi is 50 years old, and has been a grain merchant for half of his life. With his right hand, he pierces one of the bags of maize stacked against the wall. Yellow grains quickly spill out onto the glass dish he’s holding in his left hand and brighten the otherwise dark shed.
“The yellow one is sweeter than white,” he said of the different types of maize.
This corn is a staple in Nigeria. It’s also used as feed for poultry.
Sanusi learned about aflatoxin contamination in 2015 through seminars offered by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, a global organization which focuses on food security. He knew about the “mold” that tends to grow on corn when it’s in storage, but he didn’t know that it could be aflatoxin contamination, nor of the effects.
“We have been trained how to store grains,” he said of the seminars. “Because they have advised us the grains that we want to store should be well dry before bagging it.”
Now, Sanusi knows that his corn may have high aflatoxin when he sees the greenish-colored spores on the kernels. And when he identifies the fungi, he knows he’ll take an economic hit.
“The price will reduce,” he said about maize affected with aflatoxin contamination.
For farmers and grain merchants around the world, that financial effect is a concern. But at high levels, aflatoxin can also be dangerous to human health.
‘It makes the hair on the back of their neck stand up’
We’ve known about aflatoxin contamination for decades. In 1960 in England, about 100,000 turkeys began to suddenly die. They were fine — until the night before their death. The birds’ mysterious plight was dubbed “Turkey X” disease. It turned out they were poisoned by peanut feed from Brazil.
Those peanuts were contaminated with high levels of aflatoxins, which are produced mostly by the fungi, or molds, Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus. These molds grow on food such as corn and peanuts, and are types of mycotoxins. Aflatoxin is the only type of mycotoxin regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; that’s because it’s carcinogenic.
Because of that, the United States regulates safe aflatoxin levels in food and animal feed at 20 parts per billion. That’s the equivalent of one second in nearly 32 years. Or a drop of water in a 32,000 gallon pool.
“We’re talking about low levels,” said Monica Schmidt, a plant scientist at the University of Arizona.
Areas of the world susceptible to aflatoxin contamination include sub-Saharan Africa as well as parts of Asia and the Americas — places with hot and humid climates where aflatoxin-produced molds like to grow.
It’s rare to find aflatoxin contamination in food in Kentucky or in the United States. Safeguards exist to test for it at various points from the growing to the post-harvest stage. Growers can test for contamination in a lab or even wave a special light at their crops. If aflatoxin contamination is found, kernels glow blue or green.
The toxin is so well regulated here that U.S. consumers barely hear about it as a health concern. Once in a while, the mold may make the news if there’s a related recall for pet food. But even so:
“Growers here in the U.S. certainly worry about aflatoxin,” said Schmidt. “It makes the hair on the back of their neck stand up.”
According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 25 percent or more of the world’s food crops are destroyed annually because of aflatoxin. In the U.S., aflatoxin has largely been contained to an economic loss. But elsewhere, consuming aflatoxin-contaminated grains is still causing long-term health problems for humans, too.
In 1967, aflatoxicosis — or aflatoxin poisoning — happened in Taiwan. Another happened in 1970 in Uganda. Western India also suffered an outbreak in 1974. Malaysia had its own in 1988. And Kenya had an outbreak in the early 1980s as well as a few in the early 2000s. Most recently, an outbreak occurred in Tanzania in 2016.
Symptoms include abdominal swelling, liver damage, liver cancer and even death. And children are the most vulnerable to these symptoms.
Mutairu Ganiyu, 43, is wearing a dark brown jacket and driving a red motorcycle on the road that leads to the 150-hectare Ijaye Farm Settlement. Ganiyu and his brother Kazeem Ganiyu have been farming corn and cassava on the site for more than 20 years.
And here, aflatoxin contamination is an issue, too. It can contaminate corn even before the grain is harvested.
In a shed made of wood and corrugated metal, and filled with green buckets, wooden benches and roaming chickens, Mutairu Ganiyu presents a perfectly-colored gold piece of hardened corn on the cob. This is how his corn grows, he said, when there’s not contamination. He said aflatoxin-contaminated corn may have green spores. Before Ganiyu learned about aflatoxin, he used to remove the affected kernels and give them to poultry farmers to use for chicken feed.
Now, the Ganiyu brothers use a product called Aflasafe on the corn as it grows. Aflasafe is made of sorghum covered with fungi, and growers throw the blue bead-like particles on corn in the field during the growing phase.
But even corn that’s treated while it grows can become contaminated with aflatoxin after it’s harvested. To combat this, grain needs to be dried out; many Nigerian farmers rely on the sun, and it’s not uncommon to see corn laying on tarps on the side of the road. And this solution often ends up backfiring, because the mold flourishes in Nigeria’s humid climate.
Mechanized drying in the post-harvest stage is also an option. But that can be difficult if you’re a small farmer in a rural area.
“Electricity is still a major issue in many parts of Africa. So if you’re running a dryer that you need to plug it into electricity for long periods of time, it’s practically almost impossible,” said Mobolaji Omobowale, a researcher at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. “So the only option that most farmers have is to sun dry.”
This is where the Kentucky wind turbine comes in.
The Kentucky-based engineers, Akinbode Adedeji and Francis Agbali, want to use the man-made turbines to dry grains.
The energy of the turbine would be connected to a blower. The blower would generate air flux that would be tunneled into a farmer’s drying system, such as a grain storage bin or a solar dryer. This forced air would increase the rate of drying; Adedeji and Agbali say that grains can dry within 24 hours, as opposed to 3-4 days of air drying.
“The idea is for farmers to be able build this themselves,” said Adedeji. “In worst-case scenarios it would be an artisan that would replicate the system for farmers. But it would be something that wouldn’t require a university education to replicate; a high school or elementary graduate could build this.”
Agbali and Adedeji estimate it would cost about $100 USD for a farmer to build the turbine.
Omobowale said there are some areas of Nigeria where the wind speeds might be right for this project — like maybe in the coastal cities and the plains of northern Nigeria. He’s intrigued.
“You know, I’m an engineer. It’s an idea,” he said about the turbine. “I see prospects in the idea but until it has been designed and constructed and evaluated and tested and found to be working, that’s when we take it up. But it’s a spark and I see some prospects in it.”
But the Kentucky engineers have an uphill battle for their hopes of man-made wind turbines across Nigeria.
The immediate obstacle is funding. The group — which calls itself the UK Windcats — got about $15,000 to test the apparatus earlier this year. But the group is awaiting another round of funding of about $75,000, which will allow the Kentucky engineers to continue testing the model in Kentucky and travel to Nigeria early next year to test the turbine with farmers.
But a bigger problem may be that despite the health effects of eating grain contaminated with aflatoxin, the mold is a silent killer.
Many times contamination on corn isn’t visible, which makes it hard for people to draw links between aflatoxin and health issues. And these health effects happen over time — years even — of eating contaminated food. In many countries, aflatoxin contamination doesn’t command the same urgency as public health issues such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis or other infectious diseases.
“It’s just to say that we have pressing issues that must also be dealt with or discussed,” said Regina Oladokun, a pediatrician at University College of Hospital in Ibadan.
Oladokun said one of the more immediate concerns is infections.
“Infections [are] still contributing to up to half of the problems that we have; that children who come to the hospital,” she said.
Another obstacle is social behavior. Some farmers are used to selling their contaminated corn to poultry farmers for animal feed. Others who are aware of contamination simply throw their corn away. It can be a hard ask to expect a farmer to spend money to buy metal or wood to build a wind turbine.
Adedeji said the key is showing farmers the value of the turbine.
“It is going to allow them to get more return on their product. Their grain can be sold in international markets and that can attract more profit for them,” he said. “Enlighten the farmers, let them know that feeding it to livestock is not an alternative. Solving the problem is the most important thing, and this is one solution that can help them.”
Hope Despite Difficulties
A mini-turbine with a two-foot wide blade now sits inside the wind simulator in the lab at the University of Kentucky. The farmers still await word if they will receive $75,000 from the EPA to take their simulator beyond the confines of a lab in Kentucky. They hope to look for other financial sources, such as USAID, if the funding doesn’t come through.
Adedeji and Agbali have hope for their invention. Adedeji draws an analogy from aflatoxin contamination to the way we talked about Celiac disease in the past. In the 1970s a key gene was identified in Celiac disease but it took 20 years for the disease to be recognized an autoimmune condition. From there, testing for the disease became easier and in the early 2000s the disease was reclassified as a common disease.
For Adedeji, the problem goes back to a lack of data.
“We don’t know the extent of the problem,” Adedeji said. He said if Nigerian people who are affected with aflatoxin contamination knew the extent of contamination and the impact of consuming contaminated foods, it would be considered a health concern in the country.
For the engineers, the Kentucky wind turbine is about affording Nigerians the same economic and health opportunities as farmers and consumers in the United States.
Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.