Chacha Nyangi – Food Science and Human Nutrition

Chacha Nyangi – Food Science and Human Nutrition

Summary: Chacha Nyangi is an iAGRI-sponsored scholar at Sokoine University of Agriculture’s Department of Food Science and Technology.  Chacha worked in community mobilization and capacity building throughout Tanzania for nearly a decade before beginning his master’s research.  He’s currently investigating the effectiveness of a specially engineered grain storage bag in preventing the accumulation of potentially harmful mycotoxins as well as the bag’s resistance to pest infestation in stocks of post-harvest maize and beans.  Chacha is collecting data from more than 150 smallholder farmers across three villages in northern Tanzania.  Chacha expects to finish his research and to graduate in 2014, at which point he hopes to begin postdoctorate research into the presence and prevention of mycotoxins in pre-harvest food crops.  

Sponsor: iAGRI is funded by USAID within its Feed the Future initiative and implemented by the Ohio State University Consortium (Ohio State University – lead institution, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, Tuskegee University, University of Florida, and Virginia Tech). Primary institutional stakeholders in Tanzania are Sokoine University of Agriculture and the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security, and Cooperatives.


It’s in the bag: Reducing mycotoxins and pest infestation in food crops through improved grain storage

In the northern Tanzania village of Mgulu, a student researcher and a team of hired laborers have descended upon the home of a smallholder farmer. They quickly and efficiently go to work, every one of them taking up familiar tasks. Within minutes, the exterior of the home is abuzz with activity. A few men drag heavy sacks of maize from the home, others busy themselves securing a hanging scale from an overhead beam on the porch, and the remaining men spread out empty grain sacks on the ground in front of the house.

Chacha Nyangi, an iAGRI-sponsored Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) graduate student stands as still as a statue amidst all the activity. To his right, the men responsible for weighing the sacks of maize read him the weights as they hoist bag after bag onto the hanging scale. To his left, a few more individuals are down on their hands and knees counting individual kernels upon the empty grain sacks and relaying their findings. Chacha’s right hand, turned a powdery-white from inspecting fungi coated maize, runs down the survey form, quickly making note of the reported figures.

A sack of maize is singled out from the accumulating pile of weighed bags and dragged several feet away, prompting Chacha to go over and personally inspect it. He supervises as two men untie the top of an outer sack and then do the same to a green-tinted, semi-transparent plastic inner lining. Chacha plunges his hand in and pulls up a handful of maize, all of it clean, pale-yellow and exhibiting little of the dusty white substance that coats his hands.

Chacha Nyangi, an iAGRI-sponsored master's scholar from Sokoine University, along with a team of researchers from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) collect data from a farmer's home in the village of Mgulu in northern Tanzania. The team weighs, visually inspects, and takes laboratory samples of post-harvest maize that has been stored in traditional jute sacks, as well as improved "Supergrain" bags.

Chacha Nyangi, an iAGRI-sponsored master’s scholar from Sokoine University, along with a team of researchers from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) collect data from a farmer’s home in the village of Mgulu in northern Tanzania. The team weighs, visually inspects, and takes laboratory samples of post-harvest maize that has been stored in traditional jute sacks, as well as improved “Supergrain” bags.

“This is what we expect from the improved storage bags,” says Chacha grinning. “Clean corn, no insects and hopefully, few mycotoxins. These bags are important in reducing pest contamination because they keep out oxygen and moisture. Without oxygen, insects can’t live.”

It’s a good sign and one that Chacha hopes is repeated throughout his data collection. The maize in the improved, so called Supergrain bags, appears markedly different from that stored in traditional jute bags, which are made of a tightly-woven, waxy and fibrous material. Chacha opens a jute bag, and a peek inside reveals heavy insect infestation. Sitophilus zeamais, black bugs about the size of ants, have inundated the maize and are crawling up the sides of the bag interior. Chacha reaches in, scoops a sample, then drops it into a brown manila envelope that he’ll analyze later in a Dar es Salaam laboratory. There he’ll search the samples for the presence of mycotoxins, specifically fumonisins and aflatoxins, the latter of which is believed to be a cause of cancer amongst humans when it enters the food chain.

A farmer looks on from his doorway as Chacha and his research team weigh sacks of stored maize. Chacha's research investigates the effectiveness of traditional and improved maize and bean storage methods at preventing the accumulation of dangerous mycotoxins as well as insect pest infestation.

A farmer looks on from his doorway as Chacha and his research team weigh sacks of stored maize. Chacha’s research investigates the effectiveness of traditional and improved maize and bean storage methods at preventing the accumulation of dangerous mycotoxins as well as insect pest infestation.

If Chacha’s results are as he anticipates, then the Supergrain bags that his research partner and collaborator, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), have provided to participating farmers will prove effective in reducing the accumulation of mycotoxins and pests. Widespread adoption of the bags would give farmers an affordable and immediately-accessible food storage solution that could potentially boost their profits by reducing post-harvest losses while simultaneously increasing Tanzania’s food security, food safety and overall agricultural productivity.

In a way, Chacha’s research is a form of capacity building, an activity that he’s been practicing for more than a decade. Whether it’s putting his siblings through school, empowering marginalized communities through his work with an NGO, or researching the potential of improved grain storage methods, Chacha is dedicating his time and talents to devising and teaching the knowledge that individuals and groups depend on to improve their livelihoods.

Chacha’s experience in capacity building began immediately after earning his undergraduate degree in food science from SUA in 2002. Having watched his mother work ceaselessly so that Chacha had the funds to complete his education, he felt it his responsibility to return home to Mbeya, find employment and ensure his five other siblings completed their education.

Dried maize sitting on the rim of a Supergrain bag. Widespread adoption of Supergrain bags could prove effective at removing the presence of harmful mycotoxins within the maize and bean food chain as well as have positive impacts in curbing post-harvest losses due to pest and rodent infestation.

Dried maize sitting on the rim of a Supergrain bag. Widespread adoption of Supergrain bags could prove effective at removing the presence of harmful mycotoxins within the maize and bean food chain as well as have positive impacts in curbing post-harvest losses due to pest and rodent infestation.

“My mother worked hard to assure that I could go to school,” recalls Chacha.  She would wake up at 4 a.m. and work all day.  My father didn’t earn much money as a pastor, so she cooked a lot of food and then went around and sold it to support the family.  She did that until I completed my studies.  After attending SUA, I then went home for work so that I could put my brothers and my sister through school.”

As a model of hard work and dedication, Chacha inspired his siblings and instilled the drive they needed to not only excel in school, but to eventually earn college degrees of their own.  During that period, Chacha’s home and work life revolved around capacity building.

A farmer watches as two research volunteers inspect her stored maize.

A farmer watches as two research volunteers inspect her stored maize.

By day, Chacha was a community mobilizer for a German NGO operating in rural Tanzania. He taught individuals from neglected communities how to act collectively through interest groups, and he educated women about entrepreneurial opportunities outside of farming. Those were only a few of the responsibilities that taught Chacha the value that education can have in empowering individuals and groups.

“Those five years taught me that the greatest resource for development is people,” claims Chacha. “When you have people with capacity, then they love development. When you only give money and they don’t have capacity, then the money will be wasted. You must build capacity first.”

After putting his siblings through school, Chacha moved away from home to take his next job, an 18-month stint as a relationship manager for the Cooperative Rural Development Bank (CRDB) in Lindi. There he ensured that farmers obtained the credit and financial resources they needed to operate. The job was eye-opening in that it exposed Chacha to serious flaws within the market infrastructure.

Individual maize kernels are hand-counted before a laboratory sample is bagged.

Individual maize kernels are hand-counted before a laboratory sample is bagged.

“That job was not much different from what I did before,” recalls Chacha.  “I could still see the poverty and a lack of progress.  If we loaned them money, they would buy the supplies they needed and they would plant.  The problem was with the markets because there was no formal market system to sell to.  They had to sell low and there were no standards of measurement for their goods.  I knew that it couldn’t work for them.”

From the banking industry Chacha moved onto teaching as an agricultural tutor for the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives.  Teaching became a form of capacity building that he loved because success and progress were directly reflected in the personal development of those he taught.

At a farm in the village of Mgulu, Chacha (right) handles a bottle of a commonly used pesticide that a farmer uses on his maize crop.

At a farm in the village of Mgulu, Chacha (right) handles a bottle of a commonly used pesticide that a farmer uses on his maize crop.

“I loved teaching,” says Chacha. “I would teach students and then a few years later I would meet them again, and I could see how much they had accomplished.”

Though Chacha was satisfied by his teaching job, he had entered his mid-30s and had a family of his own to support. He desired greater professional opportunities and advancement, and he believed that further education was the means of obtaining it. Lacking personal funding to pursue higher education, he searched for scholarship providers, which was when he discovered iAGRI.

“iAGRI was my opportunity to get another degree,” says Chacha. “I was getting older, and had been out of school for some time. I had a family at that point and a lot of responsibilities but thought that I could not afford my own education. I thought that this was my chance to get that funding.”

Sitophilus zeamais, a commonly found pest in grain storage, climbs the side of an infested jute bag. Supergrain bags are made of plastic that seals dried grains from air and moisture, thereby preventing pest infestation. Jute bags are relatively porous and have no such protection.

Sitophilus zeamais, a commonly found pest in grain storage, climbs the side of an infested jute bag. Supergrain bags are made of plastic that seals dried grains from air and moisture, thereby preventing pest infestation. Jute bags are relatively porous and have no such protection.

As an employee of Tanzania’s Ministry of Agriculture, and with years of experience of capacity building within Tanzania’s agriculture sector, Chacha was an ideal iAGRI applicant.  Once accepted he had to face the difficult decision of possibly leaving his family for a year to study abroad, followed by another year of research implementation back at SUA in Morogoro.  It was a difficult decision, but Chacha decided to remain in Tanzania and pursue his second degree from SUA.

“I wanted to be close to my family,” recalls Chacha of his decision to forego the opportunity to study abroad.  “That was the only reason.  SUA is not far from my family, so I decided to stay in Tanzania.”

At SUA Chacha reentered the food science department, from which he’d earned his bachelor’s degree more than a decade prior.  There, exposure to research concerning the presence of mycotoxins in ground nuts reminded him of an experience from his previous work as a community mobilizer in Mbeya. From that, the idea for his master’s research was formed.

“At the time, a hot subject was mycotoxins, especially aflatoxin,” recalls Chacha.  “There was research being done on ground nuts.  Long ago, when I worked back home in Mara, I saw researchers doing that and I found it very interesting.  I thought that I could do similar research.”

Chacha inspects a handful of maize that a farmer stored with traditional bags. The kernels are coated in a fungi that accumulates when grains are stored in traditional containers such as jut bags.

Chacha inspects a handful of maize that a farmer stored with traditional bags. The kernels are coated in a fungi that accumulates when grains are stored in traditional containers such as jut bags.

Chacha turned his attention from ground nuts to maize and beans.  He wanted to understand how prevalent mycotoxins were in pre- and post-harvest sources of those commodities as well as how much was lost annually to pest and rodent infestation.  Chacha believed that an improved storage method, specifically the utilization of Supergrain bags, could drastically reduce the presence of mycotoxins and pests.
“My research is an assessment of mycotoxin levels in maize and beans along the food and feed value chain in pre- and post-harvest.  I’m looking for the presence of fumonisins and aflatoxin from samples taken from three villages and 150 farms.”
Working with 150 farms was going to be resource intensive, requiring many Supergrain bags and research assistants for the data collection process. Chacha’s academic advisor, Dr. John Mugula, was instrumental in securing additional funding.  Aside from being highly encouraging of Chacha’s research plan, Dr. Mugula connected him with IITA, which supplied the Supergrain bags and funds for research assistants.

Kernels coated in fungi indicates that they may contain mycotoxins and/or insect pests.

Kernels coated in fungi indicates that they may contain mycotoxins and/or insect pests.

“From the beginning, Dr. Mugula agreed that mycotoxin research was important because it would bring about knowledge and awareness of mycotoxin exposure through the food chain, and that ultimately such research could have a positive impact on food security.”
Just under a year into the data collection process, Chacha’s data is encouraging.  The penetration-resistant and gas- and air- tight Supergrain bags are drastically reducing pest contamination, the largest cause of post-harvest losses.  Farmers have taken notice too.

An IITA research assistant stands inside a large basket which serves as the most traditional form of post-harvest grain storage. After being filled with dried grains, such baskets will be sealed from the environment by coating them with a layer of mud and/or animal dung. Researchers find that this method can be prone to contamination.

An IITA research assistant stands inside a large basket which serves as the most traditional form of post-harvest grain storage. After being filled with dried grains, such baskets will be sealed from the environment by coating them with a layer of mud and/or animal dung. Researchers find that this method can be prone to contamination.

“They are asking us where they can buy the bags,” says Chacha.  “They’ve been well-received, not only by the farmers who tested them but by those who only saw them demonstrated.”
Chacha will also analyze his samples to find out whether the Supergrain bags can reduce the development of mycotoxins.  Based on what he’s seen of their ability to control pests, he’s optimistic.
“They should reduce the level of mycotoxin contamination,” says Chacha.  “If they do, then the only significant source of mycotoxins would be at pre-harvest, and that can be combated through biological control and farming practices such as weeding, planting on time and planting correctly.”

A field of maize growing in the village of Mgulu in northern Tanzania. Chacha hopes that his research will demonstrate the improved effectiveness of Supergrain storage bags in reducing mycotoxins and pest infestation, a result that can ultimately aid in Tanzania becoming more food secure by advocating the adoption of such bags.

A field of maize growing in the village of Mgulu in northern Tanzania. Chacha hopes that his research will demonstrate the improved effectiveness of Supergrain storage bags in reducing mycotoxins and pest infestation, a result that can ultimately aid in Tanzania becoming more food secure by advocating the adoption of such bags.

For Chacha, he’s already looking ahead to tackling those pre-harvest issues.
“My plan is to proceed with this research at the Ph.D. level,” says Chacha.  “I would like to research bio-controls that could address the problem of pre-harvest contamination of mycotoxins.”
If Chacha begins a doctoral program, he’ll be well-prepared.  He’s quick to acknowledge how iAGRI has trained him to be on the forefront of food security research.  “Apart from sponsoring me and funding my research, iAGRI has provided the facilities and staff necessary to advise and support me along the way.  The workshops and training on data analysis, research methods, and leadership courses have increased my capacity to conduct quality research.  I’ve taken so much from iAGRI.  They’ve made my student life simple.”


If you would like additional information on Chacha Nyangi’s research or the opportunity to sponsor her research further, please contact us.
Select images and story by iAGRI photographer and writer Tyler Jones.