Faculty and Staff Spotlight

Ag Econ Professor Directs Food Processing and Post-Harvest Handling Innovation Lab (FSIL)


"If smallholder farmers receive training about best practices and a safe place to store maize, they may make efforts to find a clean place to dry it before putting in a hermetic bag — leading to safer, higher quality maize for consumption."
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Jacob Ricker-Gilbert

Jacob Ricker-Gilbert, associate professor of agricultural economics, serves as project director for the Feed the Future Food Processing and Post-Harvest Handling Innovation Lab (FPIL) at Purdue. FPIL is a faculty-led, multidisciplinary project funded by USAID. It began in 2014 as a five-year, $5 million project and was renewed for another three years and $3 million earlier in 2019. FPIL works to reduce food losses and enhance the value of foods in Africa.

The project’s overall objective is to develop sustainable, market-driven value chains that reduce food losses, improve food and nutrition security, and contribute to economic growth for smallholder farmers and food processing entrepreneurs in Kenya and Senegal. Six Purdue faculty researchers and seven from other universities and national agricultural research organizations in Africa work to support and strengthen crop “value chains,” the process by which crops go from farm to market to fork.

Ricker-Gilbert led research during the first phase of FPIL to identify the most cost-effective way to prevent aflatoxin contamination and spread in the maize supply of rural subsistence households in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is an important issue because poor drying and storage conditions increase the risk of spoilage by insects, fungi and other causes.

Several fungal species produce aflatoxins, potent liver toxins associated with increased cancer risk as well as negative effects on nutrition and immune systems in humans and animals. Ricker-Gilbert’s team, which included Jonathan Bauchet, assistant professor of consumer science, and Stacy Prieto, PhD student in agricultural economics, set up a randomized intervention in the Vélingara Department of southern Senegal.

The researchers conducted a baseline survey in 209 villages (1,993 households) in May 2016. Just before the next harvest in October 2016, they randomly assigned households to a control group (group 1) and four treatment groups (groups 2-5).

    In collaboration with the Senegalese Agricultural Research Institute (ISRA), the team trained groups 2-5 (1,611 households) on improved drying and storage practices, but provided no technologies.

    The team provided hygrometers to groups 3-5 (1,217 households) as a low-cost grain moisture verification tool to determine when their maize was dry enough for safe storage.

    Groups 4-5 (819 households) received a 10m2 plastic sheet as a potential alternative to drying their maize on dirt.

    Each household in group 5 (409 households) also received one Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) bag as a means to prevent insect contamination and limit fungal growth in stored maize. PICS bags hermetically seal the maize, limiting oxygen and increasing carbon dioxide, which kills any insects on the grain at the time of storage.

All households were surveyed again in January/February and May 2017 to determine which implemented recommended practices and to test the aflatoxin levels in their stored maize. Results suggest that all treatments lowered mean aflatoxin levels compared to the control group (figure 1). However, households that received training and all technologies (group 5) had the lowest average aflatoxins levels at 12 parts per billion (ppb).

These findings provide some important insights. Group 5, which received the PICS bag, had the lowest mean aflatoxin level, suggesting that drying and storage practices go together in the mind of smallholder households. If smallholder farmers receive training about best practices and a safe place to store maize, they may make efforts to find a clean place to dry it before putting in a hermetic bag — leading to safer, higher quality maize for consumption.

More information on the study here.

More information on the FPIL innovation lab here.


An archive of previous Faculty and Staff Spolight features is available here.

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