Farming in the Global South has always been a delicate task. A lack of modern farming tools and methods and a susceptibility to floods or droughts makes farming a precarious task that often results in low crop yields. Crops can fall victim to poison-inducing fungi which, when untreated, can cause severe illness in those who consume them. One of the most dangerous fungi is Aflatoxin, a carcinogen that affects up to one quarter of all crops worldwide. Current diagnostic tests are insufficient and risk-reduction strategies have so far been inadequate. To combat this, a US-based company has developed a rapid diagnostic smartphone app that tests crops for Aflatoxin, and it is proving to be far more accurate than currently available mobile lab tests.
The app was developed by Mobile Assay, which specializes in mobile lab innovations. The test, more formally known as an immunoassay test, involves analysing a colour-changing test strip for the presence of a particular substance, in this case Aflatoxin. The test strip is photographed using the smartphone’s camera and the app calculates the pixel density of the coloured strip to determine how much Aflatoxin is present within a certain threshold. Current available lab tests are priced at $15 each plus the cost of transporting samples from rural areas to those equipped with testing facilities. This is out of reach for many in the
Global South. Some turn to cheaper tests, which return only a positive or negative result and don’t provide any information about whether or not the level of contamination poses a health threat or is fit for consumption. This test is set to cost about $2-3 and provides such detailed information. What’s more, it is immediately uploaded to an online database tracking Aflatoxin outbreaks.
Aflatoxin has been targeted for this initiative because, according to the WHO, it is one of the world’s most harmful carcinogens that affects a multitude of the crops that are farmed in the Global South. It is a naturally occurring toxin produced by a fungi that attacks maize, sorghum and nuts that have been exposed to a highly humid environment, or have been damaged by stressful weather conditions such as a drought. Until now, efforts to control the toxin have been stymied by a lack of adequate diagnostic tests. Available tests have been deemed semi-qualitative and subject to human error, and have not been able to give detailed information regarding the prevalence rates of the toxin.
Grants for field trials were provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last year, and trials began in five East African countries as part of a collaborative effort between Mobile Assay and a network of research universities and institutions. The test has proven to be more sensitive than the human eye, surpassing accuracy rates of traditional tests by 100%. The open-access map of outbreaks that is developed in real time as each test is taken is part of a wider trend of tech companies collecting varies types of data and collaborating with NGOs, governments and researchers to better tackle various issues like poverty reduction, health outbreaks, and R&D needs for farming and other livelihoods.
Given that having access to a smartphone is an determinant of who can benefit from this technology, it is perhaps best marketed for agricultural cooperatives in rural areas or local government regulatory bodies rather than for individual farmers. Testing and being able to protect larger plots of crops may be more beneficial in the long run than small subsistence farmers having this technology. Furthermore, effective use of the app would also require users to be trained on how to interpret the data. Mobile Assay is also in the process of developing a lightweight ozone decontamination unit to treat infected crops, which seeks to neutralize up to 90% of the Aflatoxin in the plant. For more information on the initiative, click here.
Keep up to date on the attempt to control Aflatoxins in Africa here.