Written by Henry Neondo
[Maputo] Kenyan Research scientist Dr. Charity Kawira Mutegi, 38, is the recipient of the 2013 Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application, endowed by the Rockefeller Foundation. Dr Mutegi made major breakthroughs in combating the deadly aflatoxin mold contamination that occurs in stored grain, which has been a serious problem in Africa and around the world for decades.
Dr Mutegi currently serves as the Kenya Country Coordinator for the Aflasafe Project for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), on assignment from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI).
The World Food Prize is the foremost international award recognizing the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world. The Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application recognizes an individual under the age of 40 who emulates the scientific innovation and dedication to food security demonstrated by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug.
Aflatoxin, a naturally occurring mold, is a major concern for farmers and consumers worldwide; it is toxic to people who consume it either directly through contaminated grain, or through milk or meat if livestock have been fed contaminated grain. It is one of the most carcinogenic substances known.
Dr. Mutegi spearheaded efforts to identify the cause of, and solution to, a deadly outbreak of aflatoxicosis in 2004-05, fatal to 125 people in eastern Kenya who consumed contaminated grain.
Her diligent research led to innovative solutions to avert future outbreaks and safeguard the region’s staple crop of maize. Dr. Mutegi is leading efforts for the development of a biocontrol product in Kenya that can be used to significantly reduce aflatoxin levels in maize.
This works by introducing naturally occurring non-toxic strains of the fungus, which have a competitive advantage over the strains that produce the deadly aflatoxin, a technology that was developed by the US Department of Agriculture – Agriculture Research Service (USDA-ARS), and locally adapted for use in several African countries by IITA and partners.
"IITA congratulates Charity for her excellent work which has led to her winning the prestigious Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application," says Dr Nteranya Sanginga, IITA's Director General. "She is a great role model for all young African scientists and we are proud to have her on our team."
The non-toxic strains outcompete the toxic strains, thus reducing aflatoxin contamination in the maize crop. The microbial bio pesticide she and her team are developing – “aflasafe KE01” – is affordable for farmers, is natural and environmentally safe, and once applied to a field, the effects last multiple growing seasons, making it extremely effective.
“Dr. Mutegi is an inspiration to other young scientists around the world. She tackled a critical problem, and has effectively transferred her own scientific knowledge to farmers and policymakers to help improve food safety for the entire region,” said Amb. Kenneth M. Quinn, President of The World Food Prize. “Like Dr. Borlaug, she has put the needs of people first, and has shown persistence, innovation, effective communication, contribution to science, and application of that science to improve lives and livelihoods.”
The award is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, and administered by the World Food Prize. In 2011, during the 25th Anniversary World Food Prize Award Ceremony, Dr. Judith Rodin, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, announced a $1 million contribution to the World Food Prize to endow the new award in honor of Dr. Borlaug, who did his groundbreaking research on improving wheat crops while working for the Rockefeller Foundation, and went on to found the World Food Prize. This year’s announcement is especially momentous as we near the 100th anniversary of Dr. Borlaug’s birth in March 2014, and also celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Rockefeller Foundation.
Dr. Mutegi will be formally presented with the $10,000 award on World Food Day, October 16, 2013, in Des Moines, Iowa, as part of this year’s World Food Prize international symposium.
During her studies of the 2004-05 outbreak, through support by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Dr. Mutegi compiled the first-ever report in the country that provided a holistic outlook on possible avenues for contamination, and also proposed an integrated approach to managing aflatoxin contamination along the maize value chain, including regulatory and policy measures.
As part of her work, she facilitated the training of more than 300 agricultural extension officers, who then worked with farmers, and over 70 maize traders and millers to increase awareness and management of deadly aflatoxin. She reached over 46,000 farmers in education campaigns about aflatoxin.
At the same time, she has engaged the government and sparked Parliament to establish a committee to investigate sources of contaminated grain, create heavy penalties for traders dealing contaminated grain, and investing in education efforts directed at Kenyan farmers who contribute to 75 percent of the country’s maize production. She has also documented the extent of aflatoxin contamination in peanuts, and proposed affordable means to prevent it.
Dr. Mutegi is currently leading the Kenyan collaborative project funded by USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to develop the biological control approach as a long-term solution for managing aflatoxin.
Dr. Mutegi credits her success to her “supportive work environment, guidance from senior scientists, mentorship and my personal work ethics. I do share the United States Marine Corps’ perspective that ‘no one ever drowned in sweat,’” she said. “An extra effort towards a worthwhile course as to save the lives of numerous non-suspecting citizenry is indeed worth the effort.”
Dr. Mutegi said she has dedicated her life’s work to food security because she has seen the effects of contamination firsthand.
“The devastating effects of maize grain contaminated with aflatoxins on many Kenyan households cannot be understated. Several lives have been lost, tons of staple food destroyed, millions of shillings worth from the livestock sector have been lost; and by extension, several livelihoods have been destroyed through death and/or economic disempowerment,” she said.
“Having studied and understood the subject matter on aflatoxins, I was confident that the solutions were not far-fetched, but rather required a dedicated course. In addition, my desire to engage in identifying lasting solutions for the aflatoxin problem was propelled by the fact that I come from an area that suffers perennial risk to aflatoxin contamination and exposure. I therefore could not overlook an opportunity to be part of the solution.”
Dr. Mutegi was educated at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, where she received her Bachelor’s degree in Food Science and Post-Harvest Technology. She received her MSc in Food Science and Technology at the University of Nairobi. She earned her PhD at the University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.