As a physician, Dr. Joseph Ojwang has always been ambitious around his passion for health and medicine. But after losing both of his grandparents to liver disease, he felt a different kind drive – one that was aimed at understanding exactly what was causing this complicated and ruthless disorder that had killed not just his grandparents, but many people in Uganda.
His medical research on the disease led him to several source causes, one being food. Uganda, like many countries in East Africa, struggles to deal with the fact that aflatoxin, a poisonous fungus that grows in soils and on many crops in the region, is highly prevalent in the food system and found in many of the foods that people eat.
“In Uganda, we have a lot of wildlife diversity and plant diversity, but we also have diversity of bacteria and fungi. This is partly because of our seasonality. We are a tropical country, and our farmers have a very short time for planting. They’re not always able to dry food appropriately and they often use traditional methods to store grains,” he said. “These methods often do not include properly drying crops or sealing them from exposure to moisture, and, as a result, aflatoxin and other bacteria form.”
Dr. Ojwang is quick to point out that there are other factors influencing the rise of liver disease in Uganda, such as a high rate of alcohol consumption and a high rate of Hepatitis B, but he points to aflatoxin as being much more insidious because it is less talked about and silently present in many food sources in Uganda, such as grains and animal protein.
“My country does not really have a food system,” he said. “And the absence of a food system creates a very big challenge in the sense that our food is grown by the poorest of the poor, who do not have the resources or education to engage in proper farming methods. One reason why I am so drawn to work with the World Food Bank is because they are one of the only companies out there asking the questions of why is this happening? Why do we have food that is infested with aflatoxin? Part of it is because our trade system is imbalanced, and it doesn’t work in favor of the farmer.”
To fix the food system in Uganda, Dr. Ojwang believes that we must start at the base level with farmers in order to understand the challenges they are facing and the motivations they have for farming the way that they farm.
“Most of our food is grown by rural farmers. Our farmers are quite rational, but many are also not literate. Our food system is not commercialized, so there are not many economic benefits or provisions for poor farmers. So you have the most disadvantaged people in a society growing our food, and they aren’t educated about safe practices around growing and storing crops. The result of this poverty and ignorance is that it creates negative consequences, not just for the health of the farmer, but for the whole health of society,” he said. “The solution we must pursue is to go back and build a quality system that addresses the welfare of farmers, that provides them with quality inputs, like good seed, and that provides them with education and incentives. You can’t just address one issue. We need to address the whole system. This is why I am happy to be working with the World Food bank, because the company’s approach and application is right.”
In his role at the World Food Bank, Dr. Ojwang will lead efforts on the ground in Uganda to test crops at our Mbarara Farm post-harvest for aflatoxin. Dr. Ojwang plans to do this by testing crops for moisture levels, as well as using specially-designed aflatoxin field test kits and lab tests, if needed. That said, Dr. Ojwang said he is primarily focused on prevention efforts to make sure aflatoxin does not become an issue at the farm. In this vein, he plans to provide deeper training sessions for the farmers who are managing cooperatives sourced by WFB. In this way, he believes the right education can be spread to better develop Uganda’s food system.
“In Uganda, we have not developed our food systems to be accountable to the consumers. We don’t have commercialization, and so we rely on informal sectors. In doing that, we lose quality. Without quality, we can’t address food safety,” he said. “Once we can create a system for this, many things will start to fall in line. I am certainly grateful to the World Food Bank for, first of all, choosing to work in Uganda and choosing to put quality ahead of profits, first. Many middlemen in Uganda put profit ahead of quality and exploit farmers without aiding them. The World Food Bank addresses all of the issues at hand, so I feel that we now have an opportunity to change things.”