The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT)  has developed the first portable low-cost device for rapid detection of aflatoxins, or poisonous chemicals produced by certain kinds of mould in soil that affect crops.

It is hoped that the device will go a long way in helping countries like Uganda to export farm products to countries with restrictive aflatoxins requirements.

Aflatoxins are a family of toxins produced by certain fungi that are found on agricultural crops such as maize, groundnuts and tree nuts.

The rapid test kit device is also affordable at under US$ 2. The kit according to the developers will be ready in two months. It will be the first portable cost-effective way for farmers and others to detect aflatoxins instantly.

It is a simple non-laboratory based kit that can be used directly by non-technical people such as farmers, agro-dealers and food processors. Currently, the test can be applied to detect aflatoxin in groundnuts.

The test kit launched this week by Dr, Wilkson Makumba, Director, Department of Agricultural Research Services Malawi, requires limited technical knowledge or training and can be done on location.

It can be used by traders to check for contamination before concluding a sale. The rapid detection is useful for public health authorities to help identify suspected samples in cases of an outbreak of aflatoxin poisoning.

The device according to Dr Anitha Seetha, a Scientist at International Crops Research Institute, Malawi will con reduce the entry of aflatoxins in the food value chains, improve diagnosis for local and export trade and support the food processing industry.

People can be exposed to aflatoxins by eating contaminated plant products such as ground nuts or by consuming meat or dairy products from animals that ate contaminated feed.

Aflatoxin contaminated food can pose a serious health risk. Symptoms of aflatoxin poisoning include: liver cancer, fluid retention, increased incidence of Hepatitis B infection, and stunting in children.

In poultry and livestock, aflatoxin can cause feed refusal, loss of weight, reduced egg production and contamination of milk.

Tropical countries are primarily affected, which includes the majority of Africa, India and other south Asian countries.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 25% of all crops in the world are affected by aflatoxins.

The WHO recently estimated that in 2010 around 20,000 people died globally from aflatoxin poisoning and an equal number fell ill.

Groundnut, maize, sorghum, pearl millet, chilies, cassava and other food products are contaminated by aflatoxin each year. They not only affect human and livestock health but can also affect the marketability of food products.

Many countries reject imports of agricultural products that exceed certain levels of aflatoxin, costing farmers millions of dollars every year. Around 90 countries have regulations that establish maximum aflatoxin limits in food and feed products.