Peanuts and aflatoxin contamination in northern Ghana: Women’s local knowledge and practices
Peanuts and aflatoxin contamination in northern Ghana: Women’s local knowledge and practices
Abdul-Majeed Ibrahim, MEM1
Peanuts (Arachis hypogaea, Fabaceae) are an important rural household crop in Ghana that is produced for consumption and sold to supplement household income, but a significant proportion of each crop is discarded each year, often due to contamination by Aspergillus fungi in the form of aflotoxins. In northern Ghana, peanuts are mostly cultivated and processed by women due to the usefulness of the crop in the household. Post-harvest handling of peanuts is a challenge in this region because women mostly rely on their local knowledge and practices. With this in mind, this study sought to identify the different ways women handle post-harvest peanuts to reduce contamination and propose local innovations women can adopt to help them manage post-harvest losses due to contamination. Focus group discussions were organized in twenty-four communities to allow women farmers to engage in a conversation with two goals: establishing and evaluating women’s knowledge on aflatoxin contamination, and determining their local knowledge and practices around handling post-harvest peanuts. The initial drying, sorting and storage of peanuts affects the extent of fungal growth that produces aflatoxins. These are crucial yet basic practices that determine the quality of peanuts and whether they are earmarked for sale, used as seeds for replanting, or kept for household consumption. I argue that women farmers use their local knowledge to manage aflatoxin contamination in peanuts; however, this local knowledge has some scientific limitations. For example, while women farmers in northern Ghana have found ways of dealing with contaminated peanuts for reasons of taste and economics, they are typically unfamiliar with the full health risks the contamination can pose.
Africa’s varied cultures and environments reflect how agriculture is practiced (US Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1984). Many households in Africa are smallholder farmers who depend on the subsistence economy, but they can also be significant contributors to state and national economies. Many households consume what they produce on their farm and sell the surplus for income. The effort to meet Africa’s food demand is hampered by drought, insect pests, proper storage facilities, market access, farming inputs, and poor rural infrastructure (Alakonya and Monda 2013). One of the most underappreciated public health concerns is the infestation of grains and some legumes by fungal pathogens. Fungal pathogens produce various toxic metabolites called mycotoxins. Aflatoxin is one such toxic mycotoxin, and it is a major health concern in Africa (World Health Organization, 2006). Aflatoxin is the most potent natural carcinogenic substance and has been linked to the prevalence of hepatocellular cancer in Africa (Strosnider et al. 2006). Maize and peanuts are the main sources of human exposure to aflatoxin because these two staples are widely consumed and are susceptible to contamination (Wu et al. 2011).
Aflatoxins are naturally occurring food contaminants produced by two species of fungus (mold): Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus. These fungi colonize a wide array of food including maize, oilseeds, spices, peanuts, tree nuts, milk, and dried fruits (Wu et al. 2011). Aflatoxin contamination can occur in the field or in storage (Williams et al. 2004). Aflatoxin has a negative impact on crop yields, human health, animal productivity, and trade (Nigam et al. 2009). High temperatures and high relative humidity in most parts of Africa make fungal pathogens thrive. Consuming aflatoxin-contaminated food can have both acute and chronic effects on humans (Wu et al. 2011). It also affects animals that consume contaminated feed. When humans consume products such as eggs and milk from infected animals, they can become infected (Wu et al. 2011). Acute toxicity is caused by consuming large amounts of aflatoxin-contaminated food. It can result in decreased liver functioning, abdominal pain, vomiting, and death (Alakonya and Monda 2013). In Kenya, there have been 125 cases of death caused by acute aflatoxin toxicity (Probst et al. 2011). Exposure to small amounts of aflatoxin over a prolonged period cause chronic toxicity—which is carcinogenic (Alakonya and Monda 2013).
Seventy-four percent of all households in northern Ghana report growing peanuts (Quinones and Xinshen, 2011). Peanuts, or groundnuts, (Arachis hypogaea L., Fabaceae) are an important rural household crop that is produced for the household’s consumption and sold for income. Government regulatory standards in the food system are impossible to enforce because rural households eat what they produce on their own farms (Alakonya and Monda, 2013). Thus, it is difficult to find reliable data on aflatoxin contamination in the food system of Ghana. However, it is clear that the majority of post-harvest peanut losses—both reduced yield and economic losses—are due to aflatoxin contamination (Masters et al. 2013). A study by Awuah and Kpodo (1996) found peanuts sampled from 21 selected markets in the 10 regions of Ghana had high levels of aflatoxin: 31.7% of the damaged nuts and 12.8% of the undamaged nuts examined were infected. An estimated 5–15% of peanuts in Ghana are discarded during sorting (Masters et al. 2013). Ghanaian peanuts continue to be sold mainly on traditional markets in which traders rely on reputation and inspection of nuts. The weakest links for safety and nutrition from peanuts often involves post-harvest handling and marketing (Masters et al. 2013). Therefore, identifying sources and local knowledge about aflatoxin contamination is a vital public health effort.
This study is important because of the role peanuts play in the diets of the rural household. Peanuts are particularly vulnerable to aflatoxin, which recent public health research has shown to be a serious, previously under-appreciated threat to nutrition and health in Africa especially for infants and young children (Masters et al. 2013). Aflatoxin contamination cannot be detected by visual inspection; hence the lack of awareness of its health and economic impact to households. Malnutrition and stunting in infants and children are high in most parts of northern Ghana (Department for International Development [DFID], 2014). Peanuts are an important source of protein and are used in almost all households to make soup, make snacks (kuli-kuli and Katin cake), and also as cooking oil. Peanuts are cultivated for household consumption and also sold for income. Unfortunately, farmers consume what has been rejected by aggregators due to their poor quality (DFID, 2014), and this adds to the concern for peanut safety in poor households in particular.
Peanuts provide income to women in poor households (Christie et al. 2014). Women farmers’ decisions and practices for the initial drying, sorting, and storage of peanuts heavily influence the extent of fungal growth. Post-harvest activities predispose the harvested products to more infestation. Subsistence level indigenous innovations can substantially reduce the burdens of aflatoxin contamination (Turner et al. 2005). Storage is a major source of infestation: storage bags are not checked for fungal infestation before being re-used, predisposing the nuts to contamination and infestation from previously stored grains or nuts (N’Dede et al. 2013).
Women are emphasized in this discussion because of their dominant role in the post-harvest handling of peanuts. Given their role in the processing of peanuts, they are likely to feed their young infants and children meals containing some form of processed peanuts. Exposure of infants to aflatoxin increases at weaning, and this contributes to stunted growth (Gong et al. 2004). Any real chance of ensuring the safety of peanuts consumed in the household rests on women’s awareness of aflatoxin contamination. Women are the primary agents responsible for food preparation, family health care, and other household tasks associated with peanuts (Christie et al. 2014). Women are therefore well positioned to help control aflatoxin contamination in peanuts from the farm to fork.
Women’s approach to managing aflatoxin contamination using local knowledge has been successful up to a point. A feasible approach to augmenting peanut farmers’ efforts to managing aflatoxin contamination is to complement their indigenous knowledge systems with scientific knowledge of the pathology of the fungus that produces aflatoxins.
This research had the following objectives:
Establish and evaluate women farmers’ knowledge about aflatoxin contamination
Determine women farmers’ local knowledge and practices of handling post-harvest peanuts
Perform aflatoxin field tests on women farmers’ worse and best peanut samples
Recommend best practices of handling post-harvest peanuts that minimizes contamination
Focus group discussions—involving women farmers who grow peanuts—were organized in twelve Disseminating Innovative Resources and Technologies for Smallholder project (DIRTS)2 districts to establish and evaluate the farmers’ understanding of aflatoxin contamination as well as the post-harvest handling practices of peanuts. Each focus group discussion had two sessions separated by an onsite aflatoxin test. For the first session, we evaluated farmer’s knowledge on aflatoxin contamination. Second, we proceeded with the rest of the discussion topics, which are summarized in the research objectives (above). The participants were asked to voluntarily bring peanut samples for testing.3 Two communities in each district were sampled based on the farthest and the nearest from the point of entry into the district and also based on the presence or absence of a community extension agent.4
Twelve participants were selected from the group of volunteers in each community but the number was reduced to eight when we got to the tenth community to ensure that all participants contributed actively to the conversation. A focus group discussion lasting at most ninety minutes was organized in each community. Two focus group discussions were organized each day. In a community where we had access to more than twelve participants, participants were selected on a first-come first-serve basis while ensuring that there was an equal proportion of old and young women. Note taking, audio and video recording were used to record the discussion. A video recording was used to help capture non-verbal communications, gestures and behavioral responses. Participants’ consent was sought and they were assured of the confidentiality of the recordings. I summarized the discussions immediately after the first focus group. The recordings were transcribed and initial analysis done to aid in moderating subsequent focus group discussions. The research questions were followed as a guide, and relevant themes were coded from all twenty-four transcripts (Nagel and Williams 2013).
Results and analysis: Establishing farmers’ local knowledge about aflatoxin
Women are familiar with rotten peanuts and they make hard choices every day about such peanuts.5 They described their experience with rotten peanuts in a variety of ways but they all pointed to one thing—they were describing signs of aflatoxin-contaminated peanuts at various stages of contamination. For example, some women talked about feeling powder on their fingers when they touch contaminated peanuts; others mentioned that poorly dried peanut kernels stick together when they are stored; some women described molds on their peanuts as “sometimes you see something like cotton on the peanuts”. These descriptions are all signs of aflatoxin contamination.
Women deal with peanut contamination all the time, but they may not understand what they are dealing with—or if they do, they understand it in a different way. For example, women know about rotten peanuts or moldy peanuts and how to deal with them, but they do not know that such peanuts are contaminated by aflatoxin6—a toxin that is byproduct of molding. Such peanuts are treated like any other food that has gone bad from microbial growth, such as bacteria and molds, and is not treated as a toxin that is fatal and carcinogenic. For example, it is common for people to cut the part of food that has molded away and consume the part that is not affected. Additionally, some peanuts may look good and not show signs of mold, but an aflatoxin test can reveal high contamination levels. The rural women who do not have the benefits of aflatoxin test kits rely on their sense organs—eyes, nose and tongue—to know if a kernel is rotten or not. The peanuts are unshelled and kernels inspected with the eyes, chewed in the mouth, or smelled. Bruised kernels with dark spots or oily spots are easy to identify with eye inspection as bad nuts. Kernels that taste bitter in the mouth because of rancid taste or odor are also easily identified as bad nuts. Rotten kernels are soft and produce oil when pressed between the fingers as opposed to good kernels that feel hard.
Participants expressed shock when I explained to them that molds leave a poisonous residue on peanuts. Different names are used to refer to bad peanuts: Sim bieri (can be identified as black or dark colored rotten kernel, Fig. 2); sim kpagma (kernels look fine but a closer inspection shows spot of oil indicating that oil in the kernel has been sucked by an insect identified as the pod sucking bug, Fig. 3)7; or sima din pir’gi (moldy peanuts, Fig. 4). Other names were mention but further enquiry revealed that they are synonyms. For simplicity, the term “rotten peanuts” will be used to interchangeably refer to these different local names, but specific names will be used to make particular reference when necessary.
The women were able to identify images8 of aflatoxin-contaminated peanuts but didn’t understand the health risks of consuming such peanuts. They found a use for the bad peanuts. For example, some women use rotten peanuts (sim kpagma and sima din pir’gi) to make dawadawa—a food condiment—whereas some use it (sim bieri) to start fires for cooking due to the oil content. Some women clean the molds on peanuts (sima din pir’gi) and then mix the remainders with good peanuts to cook or make dawadawa.
When asked if they knew about illnesses associated with eating rotten peanuts, the women had different responses. A few women mentioned that they were told at a women’s training workshop on how to take care of their children that consuming bad peanuts caused “knee problems and breast problems.9 Others too heard on the radio that consuming bad peanuts is not good for human or animal health. Clearly, the women knew a lot about rotten peanuts, but the extent of their understanding of the repercussions of consuming such peanuts was limited. They erroneously assumed that moldy peanuts are safe to consume if you clean the molds away.
Local knowledge and practices
All the farmers who participated harvested, dried, sorted, and stored their peanuts in a similar manner.
Men (mostly the sons or husbands of the women), or the women themselves, pull the peanuts from the ground and pile the haulms while the children or other women pick the nuts from the vines. In the instance where not enough labor is available, peanut haulms can be left on the farm for three or four days until all nuts have been pulled out from the ground. However, leaving the peanut haulms on the farm for three or four days initiates aflatoxin contamination. The peanut haulms are invaded by the pod-sucking bug (Elasmolomus sordidus, Insecta, Lygaeidae) which pierces its rostrum into the pods to reach the kernels to feed on. Timely harvest is important, but often limited by labor availability and climatic factors. Harvest too early to take advantage of available labor and you risk getting immature peanuts. Harvest late, and you risk insect infestation and losing the majority of your peanuts to the hard and dry ground. One of the women eloquently narrates the insect problem:
“When you allow harvested peanuts to stay in the farm for long, some reddish insect [the first instar nymphs have a bright red abdomen (Rao and Rameshwar 2013)] suck the oil of the peanut leaving patchy oily spots on the kernels when you unshell the peanuts.10 The husk of such peanuts peels off when you unshell it. The insects are a sign that the rainy season is nearing an end and the dry season is about to start. Early cultivation and harvesting reduces the insect problem”
Aside from the insect, the piled peanut haulms are exposed to moisture from rain or dew, which creates a conducive condition for aflatoxin contamination. The women are aware of this, and so tried as much as possible to avoid leaving piled peanuts on the farm. The women rely on their social network to harvest their peanuts and transport it on their heads to the house. They practice communal harvesting by helping each other to harvest their peanuts. Women who do not have enough to harvest and can afford to harvest on their own move to help on other farms in exchange for a third of what they help harvest.11 Most women do this to help soften the blow of poor harvest on their farms. Plucked peanuts are carried in pans or sacks to the house and drying begins.
The majority of women dry their peanuts on the floor of their compounds (either concrete or graveled) and rely on the sun to reduce the moisture content to optimum levels. Peanuts are dried in pods under the sun and stirred regularly to allow even exposure to the sun. A few women spread polyethylene on the ground before drying their peanuts and this is mostly done when drying peanut kernels.
Contamination during drying is common and the women are aware of some of their practices that expose peanuts to aflatoxin contamination. Drying peanuts on the bare floor exposes peanuts to aflatoxin contamination. At first, women couldn’t understand how peanuts protected in their pods could get contaminated from drying on the floor. But children, goats, sheep, and the person tasked with stirring the peanuts may step on the peanuts and crack the pods, exposing the kernels to sand particles, propagules and other contaminants, increasing the likelihood of aflatoxin contamination. Although what the women mentioned about cracked peanuts causing their peanuts to get rotten is true, they failed to make a connection to how drying on the bare floor caused contamination.
Insufficient space for drying peanuts makes stirring difficult, which causes uneven drying. The peanuts that do not get exposed to the sun begin to mold, and if not detected early enough, the mold spreads to other pods. Rain forces women to gather the peanuts and cover them with rubber or tarpaulin for protection. When the rains stop and the tarpaulin or rubber is not removed, the generated heat and trapped moisture in the piled peanuts triggers mold.12
All the women stressed the importance of drying in post-harvest handling of peanuts. Getting the right moisture content is crucial in getting quality and healthy peanuts. There is no simple way of telling whether the optimum moisture content of 6–8% (Page et al. 2002) has been reached except to use a moisture meter. The women who do not have the benefit of this machine use their local knowledge to tell when the optimum moisture content is attained. For too little drying, the peanuts will rot in storage and too much drying makes the peanuts lose their quality—the brown husk peels off leaving the white kernel. Similarly, excessive exposure to the sun can affect groundnut quality (Page et al. 2002). Women had a lot of knowledge to share about how they know peanuts are well dried and ready for storage.
Dried peanuts are crunchy in the mouth but when they are not dried, it sticks between the teeth when chewed
You hear the kernel shake inside the pod when you shake it
Fetch some for someone to chew to get a second opinion
When you press a kernel between the fingers, it breaks into two and the husk stays on but when the husk peels off, it means the kernel over dried – even with a little press between the fingers, over dried kernel shed its husk easily
Wet kernel is milky when chewed in the mouth but dried kernels feel oily in the mouth
The sand on freshly harvested peanuts pods eventually is removed as the pod dry and no sand will be found on a well dried peanut pod
The oil in over dried kernel stains its pod
The pod of a peanut that is not dried cannot be cracked open with the toe but dried pods can be cracked with the toe.
Dried kernels shake in their pods when it is being stirred during drying under the sun on the floor.
Women pay particular attention to optimum drying because it affects the market quality of their peanuts. Drying affects the color of the peanut when it is taken out of its pod (Fig. 5). Over-dried peanuts become dark brown whereas optimally dried kernels are light brown.13 Optimally dried kernels fetch higher prices in the market and so farmers pay particular attention to avoid over-drying. Another way kernels become dark brown is if they are dried out-of-pod. The sun-burn makes it dark brown. The women explained that it is just a color change and doesn’t affect taste, however, it reduces oil content and such peanuts cannot be stored for long periods.14 Most of the women dry peanuts with the pods intact to keep their peanuts viable in case they want to use it as seed. When there is high demand for peanuts, aggregators do not mind the color, but they definitely take it into consideration when there is less demand for peanuts. Kernels that have no husk due to over drying are rejected by aggregators and accepted by market traders at a much-reduced prices.
Sorting begins at the time of drying. As the women spread the peanuts to expose them to the sun, they pick out peanuts with empty shells, black pods, odd-looking pods, and oily pods. Discarding damaged nuts, discolored nuts or odd-shaped nuts can help reduce levels of aflatoxin contamination. Aflatoxins, before storage, may be found on a few nuts (Whitaker, 2003). Hand-picking dirty and odd-looking nuts can result in a 40–80% reduction in aflatoxin levels (Park, 2002; Fandohan et al. 2005; and Afolabi et al. 2006). Some women reported that it is good practice to sweep away the sand (carried along from the farm) that falls off the peanut shells as they dry.
…when you bring the peanuts to the house, you pour them at one place and take out the ones with holes in it [peanuts with holes bored by insects] and also remove the weeds in the peanuts, you will realize that the sand in the peanuts will also settle on the ground. To have very good nuts, you have to collect the peanuts from that place leaving the sand…
Women are able to identify undesirable nuts to sort by pressing on the pod. They pick out pods that collapse—meaning it has no kernel in it—or the kernel is rotten. A collapsed pod could also contain immature kernels or shriveled kernels.15 The peanuts are also winnowed to get rid of weightless pods—implying they have no kernel inside them.16
Kernels may be sorted for different purposes. Broken kernels may be sorted from full kernels or shriveled kernels may be sorted from full kernels (Fig. 6). It all depends on what the peanuts are going to be used for. Broken, dehusked, and shriveled kernels may be sorted when selecting seeds for replanting or when preparing peanut kernels for the market. These sorted kernels may not be rotten, they are not just desirable for the market and they are not viable seeds. Kernels meant for household consumption are not sorted as thoroughly: Broken, dehusked, and shriveled kernels are not removed.
A hygienic and well-ventilated store room is the ideal place to store peanuts. Storage rooms used by the women are usually structures built with poor ventilation. The women store their peanuts in polyethylene sacks.17 A few women use jute sacks, which are commonly used for storing maize and cocoa beans in Ghana. They leave the shells intact for storage—that way the kernels are protected and can be stored for a couple of months. The jute sacks are better than the polyethylene sack in terms of air circulation around the peanuts, but women prefer the polyethylene because it can be used to store a lot more peanuts than the jute sacks. The bagged peanuts are stacked on each other in musky and poorly ventilated store rooms or kitchens.
The women knew and understood the importance of putting wooden pallets on the floor before stacking the bagged peanuts. This is done to protect the peanuts from the cold floor, which can cause enough moisture to generate in the stored peanuts to cause molding. The participants’ store rooms are also not sealed from insects and rodents. There are gaps between the ceiling of the rooms and walls, allowing insects, wall geckos, and small rodents access to the stored peanuts. Activities of insect pests increase moisture levels during storage due to their metabolism, thereby changing the microenvironment conditions (Beti et al. 1995). The insects can also transport fungal propagules during movement (Beti et al. 995). Thus, high insect population levels during storage significantly increases the risk of aflatoxin contamination. Another observed practice was the reuse of storage bags from the previous season without disinfection. Some women are able to dry the sacks in the sun to allow the insects to come out; however, this does not get rid of fungal spores or toxin residue from previously stored peanuts.
Aflatoxin tests were performed halfway through each focus group discussion using VICAM’s AflaCheck.18 It is a qualitative one-step test kit for the detection of aflatoxin. I used a strip test protocol that detected the presence of aflatoxin at a cutoff level of 10 parts per billion (Waters Corporation, 2013). In each community, we tested the “good” and “bad” peanuts the women provided.19 I clarified what I meant by “good” and “bad” peanuts because in the first communities we visited, women distinguished “good” and “bad” as peanuts that could be used as seeds for planting and those that could not be used as seeds for planting respectively. In this case, they brought good kernels and provided shriveled peanuts as bad. Their perspective of “good” or “bad” peanuts helped clarify to me their priority when handling post-harvest peanuts. They would be careful to ensure that peanuts set aside for seeds were free of contamination and viable but would not go such lengths to protect peanuts designated for consumption.
The results expected after testing was to see either: (1) see two red lines which meant the sample contained less than 10ppb of aflatoxin (a negative test, Fig. 7) or (2) see a single red line which meant the sample contained greater than or equal to 10ppb of aflatoxin (a positive test, Fig. 8).
The “good” peanuts tested negative (<10ppb of aflatoxin) and the “bad” ones with rotten kernels tested positive (≥10ppb of aflatoxin). Note that the negative test for the “good peanuts” doesn’t mean there is no aflatoxin present. Aflatoxin could be present in concentrations >0 but <10ppb.20 This form of test—although it doesn’t tell us exactly how much contamination is in each sample—serves the purpose of explaining to the women that there may be some amount of the toxin in the peanut and that concentration increases with poor handling of peanuts. It was also used to make the claim of why they should not use “bad peanuts” for dawadawa or mix them with good peanuts to make soup. They understood that consuming large quantities of “bad peanuts” meant they were accumulating increased concentration of the toxin in their bodies. Referencing it to the acute and chronic toxicity of aflatoxin, I made a convincing case why they have consumed different kinds of peanuts (bad or good) and may or may not have experienced some form of sickness. Most of the participants nodded in agreement and some argued that they have observed instances where consuming “bad peanuts” have affected them in different ways.
The women were able to identify and explain some pathways to aflatoxin contamination and could tell signs that show that peanuts are going bad or have gone bad.
…when peanuts gets spoilt you will see white dusty substance. During drying, when some of the shells of the nuts crack and you don’t remove them and you store them, after a while you will find that most of the nuts become powdery…
Yua [see below] enters peanuts when it is exposed to too much heat, for example when you stack too many sacks of peanuts on top of each other and there isn’t enough air circulation or proper ventilation in the store room. Also if the nuts are not dried well. Such nuts cannot be used for anything no matter how much you wash them.
When there is yua in peanuts, some green coloration appear on it. If the peanuts are not well dried before storage or when dried peanuts are placed on the bare ground, the wet peanuts will affect it and some green coloration will appear on the peanuts.
Yua was a term that was mentioned during the discussion and the women had different explanations describing what it means, however, it was clear that they were all referring to the same thing when they used the term. I probed further by asking about practices they have adopted to mitigate yua in their peanuts, and the response I received conforms to recommendations from literature (Turner et al. 2005).
Put wood or blocks and pack sacks on them to prevent sacks from making contact with cool floor. The jute sacks can rot and the peanuts will be exposed to moisture from the bare floor.
Don’t allow the bags of peanuts to lean against the walls of the store room
…now we reduce the yua by reducing the way we step on the peanuts during drying and storage.
When you notice your peanuts are spoiling, then you dry them again
Hire more labor to help to pluck the peanuts from the vines after harvest and carry them home on time to avoid rain beating the peanuts on the farm
Early harvest so that you can dry quickly before the rains intensify
When you dry the peanuts properly and winnow away the empty pods before storage, they can’t be infested by this yua again.
The women learned this from their own experiences from previous seasons as well as what they were taught by their parents.
My own story is different, when I harvest and wants to store my peanuts and I realise my husband’s granary is not full, I seek permission from him and add mine to his and go for it whenever I need it. I realized when I store the peanuts in his granary; I pick it in very good condition. There is a saying that when you trip twice, you become wise. I stored peanuts the first year and when I needed it and opened it, the bad nuts were more than the good ones. The same thing repeated the second year, but I realised my husband’s peanuts were always good so I took the initiative to store it in my husband’s granary too
Further questioning revealed that this respondent’s case was different and was not a common occurrence among the other women. The men build granaries from straws and tree branches in which they mostly store rice (Fig. 9). The women typically do not own granaries because they cannot afford to build them and their husbands are busy with farm work or some other off-farm occupation. The case of this respondent was unique because she was an elderly woman and perhaps the first wife of her husband, so she has greater influence in her compound compared to other participants who were younger and probably junior wives of their husbands. All the participants in the communities I visited agree that storing in the granary is the best way to store peanuts for a long period. But such storage methods are for the men who grow the “important crops” such as rice and maize.
Discussion and conclusion
Local knowledge is intricately tied to rural livelihoods and so local populations possess in-depth information about agriculture, agro-forestry, pest-management, soil fertility, multiple cropping, food preservation and storage, etc. (Agrawal, 1995). Scientific/western knowledge on the other hand is abstract and isolated from the daily lives of people and focuses more on analytical representation of the world (Agrawal, 1995). Local knowledge has been described as low value by western knowledge, and it is no surprise that most local people elevate western knowledge over local knowledge. Agrawal argues that characterizing knowledge based on who possess it is nonsensical since the same knowledge can be high or low prestige depending on who advances it (Agrawal, 1995).
Local knowledge systems are culturally and socially embedded in communities and may differ from one community to another. This was evident in the two tribes—Dagomba and Konkomba—among the communities I visited. The rationale for certain practices differed in each of the two tribes and between communities of the same tribe that are quite far apart from each other. Instead of trying to categorize knowledge as local or scientific, it may be useful to accept differences within these categories and search for similarities between them (Agrawal, 1995). Local people can experiment and innovate with scientific information by combining it with their local knowledge to fill gaps (Chandler, 1991). However, Nadasdy cautions about power relations involved with integrating local knowledge and science (Nadasty, 2004). He argues that science compartmentalizes and distills local knowledge in a way that distorts its values and practices. Science is often used to extend western influence across remote locations rather than to empower local people (Nadasty, 2004).
I believe that knowledge sharing goes both ways, and depending on the direction of flow, information can be readapted to suit the needs of the user. Just as science can take and adapt local knowledge, local knowledge can also take science to adapt for use. However, as rightly noted by Agrawal and Nadasty, western knowledge is too powerful to allow a balanced exchange between the two. Allowing local people to pick what they need from science (by presenting options), rather than prescribing scientific solutions, will better serve to complement local knowledge. For example, consider an instance where a farmer is presented with two options: a prescribed improved peanut variety vs. an option on how to reduce aflatoxin contamination; my guess is that the farmer’s priority will be how to maintain kernel quality for long periods in storage and so will choose the option that teaches how to reduce aflatoxin contamination.21 The farmer will care less about an improved variety if they are struggling with post-harvest handling. Several other reasons will make them not interested in this improved variety: they will not risk trying something new because it is an important part of their livelihood and income source; and the women replant seeds they have harvested, so they won’t understand why they should purchase new seeds if they can get their own seeds. This is an instance where western knowledge attempts to use local knowledge divorced from its social and cultural context (Nadasty, 2004).
Climate change is an example of one such complex phenomena the women cannot make sense of using their local knowledge. In this instance, climate change renders some of their local knowledge obsolete and defunct. For example, using observations of the pod-sucking bug to determine the start and end of rainfall may become less accurate due to climate change. Women rely on sunshine to dry their peanuts but due to erratic rainfall, their local practice of drying peanuts in the sun with unpredictable rainfall patterns becomes challenging and may require western equipment such as the moisture meter. There are other practices that can be done efficiently using local practices, for example sorting peanuts. Removing rotten peanuts by hand picking is labor-intensive but will result in better quality peanuts than any form of mechanical means of sorting.22
With particular reference to this study, it is clear that women know about rotten peanuts and are aware that they are dangerous to consume in large quantities. Women know how to handle their peanuts to the best of their capability and knowledge: they have tried to make sense of observations they have made in post-harvest handling of peanuts and succeeded in understanding some phenomena and failed in others. There are just some things that local knowledge cannot help explain and the same goes for western knowledge.
The women’s perception of a peanuts’ suitability depends on whether it is going to be used as seed, for sale, or used as food for household consumption. The women cared more about how to keep kernels viable for replanting or of good quality for sale based on what aggregators check before buying peanuts. Little attention is given to peanuts designated for household consumption. In most households, peanuts designated for household consumption are those that fail to make the criteria as ‘viable seeds’ or meet market standards. The majority of samples (both best and worse peanuts) tested positive except in communities where kernels provided for testing are freshly removed from the pods. Unless there is physical indication that peanuts have gone bad, generally the women did not perceive potentially contaminated peanuts as harmful to their health. Interestingly, not all contaminated peanuts show the physical signs of green coloration. Kernels may look clean and healthy but may test positive for aflatoxin. This was observed in some communities who had both their good and bad peanuts test positive. Although the women did understand that aesthetics alone is not enough to help them decide if peanuts is safe for consumption, the majority of women are used to relying on physical aesthetics to decide whether to consume or not to consume peanuts. For example, sim kpagma is aflatoxin contaminated peanuts but looks good physically, however, when you chew a few kernels, it is rancid. Some women disregards the bitterness and go on ahead to process it into butter by adding a few good peanuts to balance the rancidity. Perhaps, the only threat the women perceive from the sim kpagma is the bitterness and not the fact that it is contaminated with aflatoxin. There is a chance to educate women to desist from consuming unsafe nuts as they are already aware of and observe most of the good practice that are convenient for them.
Extension agents are lacking in this region23 and may not even reach women due to religious and cultural reasons (Masters et al. 2013). Extension agents are important for the transmission of scientific knowledge to the women farmers. In this study, one of the two criteria used to sample communities was based on whether there was a community extension agent present or absent. I observed that there was no difference in the knowledge exhibited by participants across the communities.24
When an adopted practice results in positive outcomes, it could lead to more adoption of related practices. Survey data from the DIRTS project show that some agricultural extension agents (AEA) have less contact with women. This could be due to several reasons: it could be that the visit times of AEA favor men than women. Most of the participants’ peanuts farms are 1 acre or a little above and so they spend part of their time engaged in off-farm business for extra income. There may be a lack of disincentive to seek extension advice because they do not make enough financial commitment in their peanut farms. Most women recycle seeds from the previous harvest and do not apply fertilizer.
Recycling seeds for replanting is causing problems for the women. Especially at a time like this when the impact of climate change is manifesting in smallholder agriculture. The variety of peanuts cultivated depends on aggregators’ preferences and market demand. Most participants with the exception of a few, grow the china peanuts variety. Most participants prefer this variety because of the short maturation time and the aesthetics of the kernel. Unfortunately, they recycle the seeds too many times causing perhaps the reported low yields.
It appears the women do not realize the importance of using certified seeds, and efforts should be made to increase the contact time with extension agents. Education on seed recycling for planting and certified seeds should be emphasized. Perhaps more emphasis should be placed on explaining the rationale behind certain extension messages to help farmers make informed decisions on adoption. For example, when educating farmers about recycling seeds only twice and then buy certified seeds, more efforts should be made to explain the reasoning behind that recommendation. Breaking down messages into understandable bits may be oversimplifying things and not achieving the desired effects.
Participants demonstrated knowledge of good storage practices for peanuts and integrated pest management (IPM) practices. They understand concepts like planting and harvesting on time to minimize pest and disease attack. However, despite acknowledging that drying is a vital stage of post-harvest handling, women seem to struggle to adopt some of the practices from the video on drying. Again, it comes back to certain constraints that cause reluctance in adoption. Labor constraints, financial constraints, being able to innovate using available resources, constraints from nature (rainfall and sunshine) may hamper the adoption of some extension messages. Drying takes a lot of time and it always requires that someone sit close to watch out for animals while it dries. Some practices like buying tarpaulin or polyethylene to spread on the ground before drying is a practice a few participants adopted due to financial constraints. There is little incentive to invest in polyethylene since most women harvest few peanuts. The impression I got from participants was that their harvest is not worth making that extra investment in the post-harvest handling stages. There are some practices that women can adopt by innovating with available resources at their disposal. For example, women are able to get wood to make racks or arrange stones on the floor of storage room before stacking bags of peanuts on top.
I have examined post-harvest interventions women employ to minimize aflatoxin contamination in peanuts. It is clear that the applicability of their local knowledge is limited in certain circumstances, which makes their efforts to minimize contamination counterproductive. Information sharing via extension agents can get women access to scientific knowledge that they can readapt for their use. I found it interesting how the participants are able to determine if peanuts are optimally dried without using any form of equipment. Post-harvest interventions such as drying, sorting, and storage are important practices women use to reduce aflatoxin contamination in peanuts. Drying seems to be the factor of most concern amongst the challenges women farmers face. Unlike harvesting and sorting where the limiting factor is labor, the limiting factors for drying include climate change and its side effects that they have no control over. For the first time, I have actually appreciated the impact of climate change on crop production and how it affects communities that depend on natural resources for their livelihood. It is unfortunate that local people cannot adapt local knowledge quickly enough to understand the environment better and adjust appropriately to climate change. Participants I spoke to informally told me how the rain falls at a time they do not expect it and are not prepared for it. It affects how they handle their peanuts because rainfall patterns have changed and they are finding it hard to determine when to sow seeds.
Basic sanitation practices are crucial to handling post-harvest peanuts. Observing sanitation practices like sweeping the floor before drying peanuts or disinfecting old sacks before reuse can help reduce aflatoxin contamination. Storing peanuts in pods also protects kernels and helps to reduce aflatoxin contamination. Early cultivation and timely harvest also reduces the chances of pest attacks and subsequent contamination.25
There are scientific methods to dealing with aflatoxin, however I hesitate to propose such interventions due to the cost involved and the subsequent side effects of these technological interventions (Ferguson, 1990).26 Using a moisture meter for drying or using hermetically sealed bags for storage (Masters et al. 2013), and genetic engineering (Alakonya and Monda, 2013) are some scientific methods to control aflatoxin.
Government and other stakeholders should train and deploy more female extension agents to work closely with women farmers. To encourage adoption of practices, extension messages and technologies should be designed in a way that allows farmers the chance to use their already existing or available resources. To achieve this, there should be more innovation in crafting and delivering extension messages. Further research is needed to understand if and how climate change will affect local knowledge and practices.
My gratitude goes to my academic advisor, who is a principal investigator for the DIRTS project and was kind enough to share data and information which I relied on for baseline information for my study areas. I am also grateful to the entire IPA Tamale office staff for their warm reception and willingness to answer question I had about the communities that I visited. I am grateful to John Balanko, my in-country supervisor, who helped me plan my field visits to the communities. I am grateful to my research assistant, Hilda Alhassan and to my driver, Alhassan Salifu for their patience, assistance and company. Without them I couldn’t have made it to most of the communities. I would also like to acknowledge the Tropical Research Institute, the McMillan Center, and FES’ Career Development Office for the financial assistance that made my trip to Ghana possible.
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Appendix A. Field Site Selection and Justification
I selected my research sites based on my access to DIRTS project baseline data. DIRTS program has established rapport with farmers in these districts since November 2013. Moreover, I had access to Community Extension Agents (CEA)—select community members purposefully trained by IPA (Innovation for Poverty Action) for the DIRTS (Disseminating Innovative Resources and Technologies for Smallholder) project. The DIRTS project is implemented in 162 communities, consisting of 3240 households in 12 districts of the northern region of Ghana. The project is supported by USAID, ATAI and Yale University. Details of IPA’s DIRTS project and methodology can be found at http://www.povertyaction.org/study/disseminating-innovative-resources-an…
Appendix B. Questions for Focus Group Discussion
Because aflatoxin cannot be seen with visual inspection and is difficult to describe in the local language, I established farmer knowledge on aflatoxin contamination by asking them about the fungus that deposits aflatoxin on peanuts. Poorly-dried stored peanuts get moldy with green coloration.
Establishing farmers knowledge on aflatoxin
Tell me about your experience with rotten peanuts
How can you tell if it is rotten? (e.g., by tasting or eye inspection)
What makes the peanuts get rotten?
What are some illness associated with eating rotten peanuts?
Are there other names you use in referring to bad peanuts?
What happens if you store peanuts that is not properly dried?
Do your peanuts get moldy in storage?
Are sorted moldy peanuts the same as rotten peanuts?
Are you familiar with green coloration on poorly dried stored peanuts?
What do you do with such peanuts?
[Perform aflatoxin test on both their best and worst peanuts]
Tell us about yua in peanuts
How did you hear about aflatoxin contamination?
What practices did you adopt to mitigate this yua in peanuts?
When did you start adopting new practices to minimize peanuts contamination?
How do you sort your peanuts?
How do you dry and store your peanuts
How do you know if the peanuts has dried enough and is ready for storage?
What practices have you adopted to ensure you reduce peanuts contamination?
How often do you talk about peanuts farming or any other crop you grow with your friends, neighbors or your relations?
Tell us about other ways that you know people handle post-harvest peanuts in order to reduce aflatoxin contamination.
How are buyer/aggregators able to select the best peanuts?
Tell me about your overall experience in groundnut cultivation.
Amongst your friends, neighbors and other peanuts farmers from nearby communities, do you know someone who is able to reduce the amount of bad peanuts from their harvest?
Do you know what this farmer is doing differently that you are not?
Have you tried reaching out to learn what that farmer does differently that you don’t do?
Do you know of harvested peanuts varieties that have less bad nuts from their harvest?
Do you belong to a women’s group and how helpful it is?
How often do you meet and to talk about good practices of handling peanuts?
Do buyers/aggregators check farmers’ peanuts for quality before they purchase?
What do they check?
Do they offer different prices for different qualities of peanuts, or do they simply reject to purchase peanuts that they think are low-quality?
How would you use peanuts that are rejected by a buyer/aggregator?
Abdul-Majeed is a Masters of Environmental Management candidate at Yale F&ES, focusing on agricultural innovations in smallholder farming and rural development. This research was conducted in his native country, Ghana↩
Disseminating Innovative Resources and Technologies for Smallholder (DIRTS) project is research being done by the Innovation for Poverty Action (IPA), a US-based non-profit organization, to test whether access to improved yield agricultural inputs and extension advice would lead to more intensive land cultivation and increased earnings among farmers in northern Ghana. I selected my research sites based on access to DIRTS projects baseline data, which my academic advisor made available to me. The DIRTS program has established rapport with farmers in these communities since November 2013.↩
We brought our own samples in case participants couldn’t provide us with samples. But in all the communities we visited, participants were able to provide samples for testing.↩
Community extension agents, who are residents of the community, were trained for the DIRTS program.↩
Due to the lack of a word to use to call aflatoxin, several question were used to establish if the women know about aflatoxin. Questions about women’s experience with rotten peanuts generated a lot of discussion in the focus groups. The statement “Experience with rotten peanuts” is used to ask the question because it is in the rotten form that contamination is high.↩
In a study by N’Dede et al (2013) respondents used physical attributes—black color, white dust, greenish etc.—as a criteria to identify aflatoxin contaminated peanuts. The responders also suspected broken kernels or burrowed kernels by insects to be contaminated by aflatoxin.↩
The Pod-sucking bug Elasmolomus sordidus invades peanuts haulms on the field or in storage. They feed on the kernel by perforating peanuts pods with their rostrum and this causes an increase in the free fatty acid content of the oil, thus producing a rancid flavor (Rao and Rameshwar, 2013). This reaction explains the bitter taste when sim kpagma is consumed.↩
Figure two and four were printed and distributed to the participants for identification.↩
In N’Dede et al (2013) study, respondent’s demonstrated their limited knowledge of the health effects of consuming aflatoxin contaminated peanuts. They listed diseases such malaria, diarrhea, and coughing as illness associated with consuming large quantities of contaminated peanuts.↩
The pod-sucking bug does not suck the oil, but feeds on kernel and the resulting patchy oil perhaps explains the increase in fatty acid content that causes the rancid flavor.↩
Each woman plucks as much peanuts from the vines of the piled haulms. In the end, the quantity of peanuts each woman is able to pluck from the vines is divided into three parts and the owner takes two parts and woman who did the plucking takes one part. This is a livelihood strategy commonly practiced among women in peanut farming.↩
Sometimes there may not be enough sunshine for a day or two after it rains. This is not good for the peanuts and may cause some to mold. Most women who participated do not harvest a lot of peanuts that will make it impossible to dry peanuts in their compound, regardless they struggle with their modest harvest as they rely solely on the sun for drying to the optimum moisture content.↩
See Fig. 5.↩
Women who experimented drying freshly harvested peanut kernels out-of-pods claim, when you expose one side of the kernel to the sun without turning the other side, you notice the difference in color on both sides—the side exposed to the sun becomes dark brown and the side hidden form direct sun remains light brown.↩
See Fig. 6: shriveled kernels doesn’t imply the nuts are rotten, but it is sorted and dried separately from the rest. Interestingly, it is sweeter (“sugar sweet”) than regular kernels.↩
What has been described in the paragraph above is done for shelled peanuts. However, for unshelled peanuts, the kernels are sorted differently if it is intended for immediate household consumption. To prepare kernels for cooking, some women described pouring the peanut kernels into hot water so that bad kernels would suspend whereas good kernels sink to the bottom. They explained that cold water can also be used but hot water is preferred because it is able to kill insects that may be hiding somewhere in the kernels.↩
Polyethylene bags are larger and can be reused several times compared to the jute sack. Because peanuts are mostly stored with pods, which makes it bulky and fills the bag quickly, polyethylene bags are preferred.↩
I differentiated “good” to them as peanuts they trust is free of any sort of contamination and they would not hesitate to consume whereas “bad” peanuts as those they judge as unfit for consumption.↩
The World Health Organization (WHO) has set a maximum level of aflatoxin at 20ppb in human food and 100ppb in animal feed (N’Dede et al, 2013, cited in WHO, 1998). The European Union has a much stricter limit set at 4ppb for any food product meant for human consumption.↩
See Gray, L. C., & Morant, P. (2003) where farmer’s perceptions about soil fertility reflect concerns that are more important to them and contradict scientist’s perceptions of soil fertility.↩
I haven’t heard about, or come across in the literature, a mechanical sorting machine that separates bad peanuts from good ones.↩
On average, there is only one extension agent for every 3,000 farmers (Master et al 2013).↩
Community extension agents (CEAs) of the DIRTS program did not seem to have any effect on difference in knowledge among the participants or perhaps, participants were simply not reached by CEAs. Several other reason could have accounted for this, too. Note that all participants were women whereas DIRTs project deal with both male and female farmers.↩
This recommendation will be difficult to adhere to due to the effects of climate changes (i.e., erratic rainfall patterns and drought).↩
See James Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine where he argues that bureaucratic state power use “poverty as its entry point” to launch an intervention (in this case a project to boost agricultural production) had no effect on poverty but created a new local administration.↩