Why maize processors have resorted to importing grains

Major agro-processing companies in the country have resorted to importing maize from abroad to address the insufficient local supply of quality grains.
Workers during a sorting exercise of maize at a warehouse. File
Workers during a sorting exercise of maize at a warehouse. File

Major agro-processing companies in the country have resorted to importing maize from abroad to address the insufficient local supply of quality grains.

The main issue affecting the quality of locally produced corn is Aflatoxins, according to officials.

According to United States’ National Cancer Institute, Aflatoxins are a family of toxins produced by certain fungi that are found on agricultural crops such as maize (corn), peanuts, cottonseed, and tree nuts.

Aflatoxin-producing fungi can contaminate crops in the field, at harvest, and during storage.

Processors claim that some farmers store their produce for long (months) after harvest with aim to sell it at higher price when there is scarcity, which leads to the deterioration of the grains because they lack proper storage facilities.

Local firms such as Africa Improved Food (AIF) and MINIMEX – two major local agro-processing companies which need a combined 50,000 tonnes of maize annually – have their own laboratories testing the quality of maize.

AIF imports about 80 percent of some 28,000 tonnes of maize it needs per year, mainly from Zambia because the local maize has high level of aflatoxins, according to the firm’s Country Director, Prosper Ndayiragije.

In an interview with The New Times, Trevor Augustine, General Manager of MINIMEX - producer of Fine Maize products in Rwanda - said that the firm would like to get from Rwanda all the maize it processes, observing that they only resort to importing because of quality deficiencies.

He said that MINIMEX needs about 500 tonnes of maize to process per week.

The company has also been importing maize from Zambia.

MINIMEX would want to get 80 percent, and even 100 percent of the maize produce it needs, from Rwandan farmers, he said.

However, he said, they need high quality maize so that they meet the high quality standards needed by their customers in the country and beyond, including the Word Food Programme.

“People always want to use Rwandan maize. I would love to use 100 percent if I could. But if it doesn’t meet the specification that we require, we have to go elsewhere,” he said.

MINIMEX’s Augustine said that the maximum acceptable Aflatoxin PPB should be well below 10, but, it has gone many, many times higher to more than 50 for some of the local maize they tested, which was too high.

PPB is parts per billion, a commonly used unit of concentration for very small values.

The President of maize farmers’ cooperative federation, Evariste Tugirinshuti told The New Times that maize with Aflatoxins was coming largely from farmers who are not in cooperatives because they lack skills, plus storage and drying facilities.

He said that when farmers’ produce is rejected owing to Aflatoxins, they do not get income, and are therefore discouraged in terms carrying on their farming activities.

Talking about storage facilities, Tugirinshuti said that there are about 540 storage facilities countrywide, which he considered not enough compared to all the farmers and the country's territory.

“In line with addressing the issue there are buyers who purchase farmers’ produce while still in field, after that the buyer shells and dries it to prevent Aflatoxins cases,” he said.

Fixing the issue

Realising the issue of poor quality associated with Aflatoxins, Ndayiragije said that AIF made a decision to reach farmers in their fields, buy their maize produce, show them how to properly harvest it, and help them transport the maize and dry it with its own machines.

The Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources, Dr. Gerardine Mukeshimana said that Aflatoxin poison affects maize when farmers poorly store their maize, and as a result, no factory accepts their produce, and we cannot allow it to go in the food chain for consumption, because it has poison.

To ensure that the problem is addressed, she said that they want to spread to many farmers good farming and post-harvest handling practices such as proper drying like those achieved by Gisagara District farmers who last month, sold maize without Aflatoxins.

She said that there are storage facilities that can keep about 290,000 tonnes of cereals and grains at cooperative level, per year, and that the government wants to increase them.

“We are working with the private sector including the agro-processing factories, and the youth [in agri-business] on educating farmers about proper harvesting and post-harvest handling so as to meet the required standards,” she observed.

Augustine said that about two years ago, much maize was being imported from Uganda to Rwanda, but pointed out that when it comes to maize quality, Zambia is the most important market.

According to information from MINAGRI, a cross-border market assessment carried out in February 2017 showed that maize is one of the commodities that Rwanda imports from Uganda, whereby 113,000 metric tonnes were imported in 2016, costing Rwf10 billion then.

Tugirinshuti said that last fiscal year (2016/2017) about 700,000 tonnes of maize were produced in the entire Rwanda, while the harvest is expected to be slightly higher this year.