Master's student trains peanut flour processors in pursuit of food safety


By Alex Merritt

University of Georgia, Peanut & Mycotoxin Innovation Lab

Chikondi Magombo is working to improve a nutritious, but affordable traditional product in Malawi – peanut flour – by giving processors some basic training to help them turn out higher quality and safer product.

Peanut flour, or groundnut flour as it is known in Malawi, is protein dense, but relatively inexpensive, making it a popular additive in breads, sauces, and soups.

Magombo’s research looks at the processing methods used during the production of peanut flour to find ways they might improve. Peanut flour processors who use that information can improve the quality and safety of their product for the consumer and, at the same time, see their own income increase.

“The quality and safety of food is overlooked in developing countries. Food that is supposed to build our bodies up is destroying us, either due to naturally occurring toxins or introduced microorganisms due to lack of hygiene,” said Magombo, a 24-year-old master’s student at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Malawi.

“Groundnuts are … a crop whose production and consumption could help to achieve improved nutrition at a household level. This is because they are a cheap source of protein considering that the majority of people in developing countries live on less than a dollar a day,” she said.

While groundnuts are nutritious, if they are dried or stored improperly, they run the risk of accumulating naturally occurring molds that produce aflatoxins.

“Aflatoxins have been proven to cause stunting in children, and are carcinogenic, and suppress the immune system,” said Magombo.

Magombo’s research focuses on interventions that can be applied during peanut flour processing to reduce the carryover of aflatoxins into finished flour.

She started by surveying flour processors – from large scale processors to cooperatives to small-scale operations – then took samples of peanut flour from processors of different sizes and in different districts. She then analyzed the samples for quality and aflatoxin content.

Of the 155 samples she took, 63 percent had aflatoxin concentrations above 20 ppb, the maximum allowed in the U.S., and 68 percent had aflatoxin concentrations above 10 ppb, the maximum allowed in Malawi.

“Baseline results show that groundnut flour processors are not aware of the dangers of aflatoxin, and that the practices and activities that are done during processing are not in line with good quality, safety and aflatoxin reduction. Sorting and drying before processing are some of the activities that were not done by most processors.”

From what she learned in the surveys and samples, Magombo created a training program and invited processors to attend ongoing sessions in Lilongwe, Kasungu, and Blantyre. Experts from LUANAR, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, and the Malawi Bureau of Standards trained 56 processors, mostly small-scale operators in ways to improve their processing.

“The training emphasized equipping the processors with knowledge on aflatoxin (what is aflatoxin, its economic and health impacts), blanching, drying, sorting, safety and quality of groundnut flour,” said Magombo.

Working to empower processors to create safer flour was Magombo’s favorite part of the research process and is the reason that she was interested in peanuts in the first place.

“The fact that groundnut is one of the crops that can be contaminated by aflatoxins means more poor people may be at risk. This triggered me to focus on groundnuts and groundnut products, to impart knowledge to processors and minimize aflatoxins to acceptable levels in order to reduce contamination amongst consumers,” she said.

The next area to research would be investigating how aware consumers are of aflatoxin.

“Consumer awareness of the safety and quality of groundnut flour is vital in improving the product on the markets. Consumers have the power to demand higher quality and safer products,” said Magombo.

She won’t take up those questions now, though. Magombo plans to go into business after she graduates.

“I would like to venture into entrepreneurship, own a groundnut production plant in Malawi that meets international standards, exporting groundnuts and groundnut products to every part of the world.”

Published Feb. 21, 2017