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How cassava-based food processors endanger health of consumers

By Femi Ibirogba
01 April 2019   |   3:13 am
• Pose food safety threats to 100 million Nigerians Head of Agro-Economy Desk, FEMI IBIROGBA, observed some cassava-based food processing centres in Oyo and Ogun states, comparing and contrasting the processes. He writes about the deplorable state of equipment, unhygienic environments and unwholesome practices in processing the root crop to various staples, as well as…

Dewatering of cassava pulps in Oyo PHOTOS: FEMI IBIROGBA

• Pose food safety threats to 100 million Nigerians
Head of Agro-Economy Desk, FEMI IBIROGBA, observed some cassava-based food processing centres in Oyo and Ogun states, comparing and contrasting the processes. He writes about the deplorable state of equipment, unhygienic environments and unwholesome practices in processing the root crop to various staples, as well as how the government can intervene.

High morbidity and mortality rates associated with food-borne diseases have been linked to unwholesome procedures, processing environments and unhygienic tools as well as poor storage facilities of locally processed foods from especially root and tuber crops.As Nigerians are exposed to consumption of chemical residues in grains and beans due to unprofessional use of synthetic pesticides and insecticides for food preservation in storage, food safety has become a serious concern not only to the government, the academia and researchers but also consumers and food processors.

Over 50 percent of Nigerians are estimated to consume one or two cassava-based staples, implying that processing of these staples poses food safety threats to about 100 million Nigerians.An agricultural entrepreneur, Mr Kolawole Adeniji, said in the southwest, south-south and south-east, garri or fufu and other cassava-based foods closely follow rice as the most consumed staple in Nigeria.

“Cassava-based foods are actually going to overtake rice soon because we have other products apart from garri, like fufu, lafun and others. We can say over half of Nigerians are consuming cassava-based foods because cassava flour is used for confectioneries and the demand for cassava flour is on the increase locally. This means more Nigerians are eating cassava foods, especially garri,” he said.

Oyo cassava processing clusters
A visit to a major cassava-based food processing centre in Oyo, in Oyo State, at Ajegunle area, opposite Ajayi Crowder University, at the weekend, revealed eyesores.The most worrisome of the malpractices at the processing centre is that cassava roots are peeled and grated without washing. The remnant of the sand and dirt as a result of peeling handling are grated with the roots.

The ideal practice is that after the roots are peeled, they are washed before grating. That would ensure dirt and stones are removed.One of the processors who spoke with The Guardian, Mrs Afusat Raheem, explained that because they processed in commercial quantity, and that there was no well or borehole water, they could not wash the roots before grating, ignorantly claiming that dirt and sand deposits would flow out of the pulps through de-watering process.

However, another major processor on the cluster, Alhaja Mujidat Owolabi Azeez, admitted the roots should be washed, and they would do so if they have dependable sources of clean water and washing facilities.Apart from the above, there are no toilets, no safe storage facilities for finished products, and the only available but grossly inadequate well was donated by a well-wisher.

Processors, suppliers of cassava roots, workers and buyers of the products defecate in open places behind the centres; the grated roots are de-watered on planks soaked with mud made of water from cassava pulps and soil; the product, mainly garri, is kept in wooden shanties called storehouses where rats and cockroaches could contaminate the products and the general environment is very dirty, unkempt and prone cholera outbreaks.The cassava grating places are equally unkempt and machines are old, rusty and of no food quality grades.

Ibadan, Egba and Ijebu cassava processing practices
In Ibadan, Oyo State capital, cassava food processing conditions are a bit better than in Oyo town, and their practices more acceptable though not ideal.A visit by The Guardian revealed that at Temidire Cassava Processing Centre, Eleyele roundabout, processors have toilet facilities (though inadequate), well and borehole water sources, and the centre is flanked by Eleyele Water Works premises, making water available for washing of the roots after peeling. The Ibadan processing methods help minimise deposits of stones and dirt. Another exception is that fermentation is done in covered containers, especially for fufu production.

Apart from these, other conditions are similar. The processing equipment, fermentation and de-watering places at the Ibadan centre are equally dirty, unwholesome and storage facilities are not available. They too store the products in the wooden storehouses, but in plastic containers.The processing procedures here are much more like in Ogun State, with product tags as Garri Egba and Garri Ijebu. The Garri Egba are cassava flakes processed by the Egba people in Ogun State, and they are mostly clean and attractive cassava flakes without stones or dirt.The Garri Ijebu are flakes processed in Ijebu area of the state with some levels of hygiene too. In both, cassava roots are peeled, washed and fermented, with little or no stone deposits.

However, hygiene of the larger processing centres depend on individuals, groups operating the centres and government interventions.Basically, the equipment and tools in all the processing centres, from Oyo to Ogun, are dilapidated, of no standard for food, and operated in unkempt environments.Except for a few privately operated or government-modelled cassava-to-food processing centres in Nigeria, most of the centres or clusters are like the ones in Oyo town: without basic means of hygienic processing, storage and conveniences.

Public health implications
Most of the cassava-based food processing clusters are real threats to the public health, for they are reservoirs of food-borne diseases caused by contamination, pathogenic bacteria, viruses and parasites.Lassa hemorrhagic fever has been rampant in Nigeria in the last few years, and medicals have attributed the widespread exposure of food to excreta and defecations of the vector rats. Most garri processing clusters, particularly the ones visited in Oyo and Ogun states, are places where conditions for food contamination, the spread of food-borne viruses, including Lassa virus, are let loose.Within two weeks of the onset of symptoms, most Lassa-infected people die, and most of those who survive have hearing losses.

Dr Olajide Olalere, a public health consultant based in Ibadan, said “there is no way one would peel cassava and grate it without stone deposits,” saying it could contribute to cases of appendicitis.However, he opined that since garri is fried, bacteria and viruses would die in the process of frying.Nevertheless, added that if rats and other vectors defecate on stored garri, or other cassava-based foods, various viral and bacterial infections, such as Lassa fever, could be recorded.He said: “After frying, if the garri is contaminated in storage with excreta of virus-carrying rats, it is dangerous. It can transmit Lassa fever. This is a major problem in the health sector in Nigeria now.“He who does not wash cassava after peeling is likely not to keep it in a safe environment.”

Economics of the processors
At the Oyo processing cluster alone, hundreds of people directly earn their livelihoods through the cassava-food chains.Alhaji Ganiyu Ajikobi, a leader of the Agunpopo Akunlemu Garri Processing zone in Oyo, estimated the quantity of cassava roots processed daily at the cluster as 140 metric tonnes, yielding about 46 tonnes of garri daily, apart from the other quantities processed in other clusters within the town.Giving the breakdown to The Guardian, Pa Ajikobi said each day, at least 20 mini pick-ups (each carrying three tonnes) and about four 18-toone trucks convey fresh roots of cassava to the clusters for processing.

Machine (graters and jacks) owners are 75 in number, he said, and each employs about three other workers. About a 100 processors (those who buy fresh roots, process into garri and other products) also employ no fewer than five persons each doing the peeling, frying and packaging for sale.Pa Ajikobi said commercial drivers supplying roots to the cluster, conveying garri to cities like Bodija market in Ibadan; Ketu, Mile 12, Okokomaiko and other markets in Lagos and Katsina, as well as other places in the North, are no fewer than 30, with their assistants.

Over 1,000 Nigerians, he estimated, are directly employed in the value chain at the cluster, apart from the farmers who cultivate the cassava.At the Eleyele, Ibadan processing cluster, one Miss Gift Treasure Akpabio, who claimed to be an extended family member of Godswill Akpabio, a former governor of Akwa Ibom State, said there are about 60 processors and 10 machine operators at the cluster, apart from other labour hands who peel and fry the product.

The ideal processing environment, equipment
Regional Coordinator of the Cassava: Adding Value for Africa (C:AVA) Project II, Professor Kolawole Adebayo, said basic hygiene should guide processors that washing of peeled cassava roots before processing further is a desired quality.“The finished products of cassava like gari and fufu cannot be cleaned further before consumption. It is essential, therefore, that cleanliness in the processing line be paramount. If the practice you described at Oyo is true, it needs to be roundly condemned,” Prof. Adebayo said.He said sanitary inspectors at the local government levels should address the hygiene situation.

“It should also concern well-meaning stakeholders represented by NGOs. Interventions to ensure the adoption of good food processing practices must be promoted. Water, appropriate storage facilities, toilets and other supportive utilities are essential, particularly in clusters such as the one at Oyo,” Adebayo added.On the ideal machines, Mr Adeniji and Prince Idowu Adeoya, who are food equipment fabricators, said cassava processing clusters ought to use food-grade stainless graters and fryers to meet international acceptable standards.

Mr Adeniji, who is a medium-scale processor in Oke-Ogun area of Oyo State, suggested that the government should pay serious attention to those clusters because they are serious employment creation centres.“They are supposed to give them boreholes and convert those areas to real business zones. There should be mechanisation and division of labour at those clusters. The government can help build the places and get them organised so that those peeling will be in one place; those washing, grating, frying, as well as those packaging would specialise, and the cassava owners or processors would pay a token for each service. This will make it really business-like,” he said.Adeniji said the government should set up a quality control unit paid and equipped by it to ensure food safety by building a warehouse for the processors.

The small-scale processors do not have the means to provide the hygienic and organised environment, he said, and “if the government invests in machinery and infrastructure, it will empower the people to create more job opportunities and the government could recoup its capital with time.”He submitted that good quality control systems would encourage decent and hygienic processing and more people would consume the products because of the likely high of quality.
Adeniji and Adeoya said automated peelers, fryers and other semi-automated machines should be made available at the clusters to make the processing less tedious and more hygienic.Automated fryers, for example, Prince Adeoya said, would use gas and would prevent or reduce exposure of women to smoke from firewood used in frying garri. Forest depletion would reduce, cost of production would come down and cases of diseases associated with persistent inhalation of smoke would be minimised if modern machines are used, so said Adeoya.

Government, corporate bodies’ interventions
The C:AVA coordinator, Prof. Adebayo, said a responsible government with interest in the welfare of its citizens would provide the requirements and therefore be entitled to demand compliance with hygiene and other essential good production practices.“The support of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other stakeholders are desirable in these instances, but should not be expected as a replacement for essential government roles,” Adebayo said.

At the Oyo town processing cluster, located directly opposite Ajayi Crowder University, Alhaji Salaudeen Ibagun, President of the Oyo Kingdom Cassava Processing Association, appealed to the Oyo East Local government, the state and the Federal Government to intervene in the deplorable situation by providing borehole water, washing basins, toilets and storage facilities.He disclosed to The Guardian that the association had earlier earmarked a place for borehole digging by the local government, but nothing had been done.

Calls for ‘trader money’ loans
Alhaji Ibagun added that the processors and machine operators refused to take loans from financial institutions because the interest rates are too high.He, therefore, appealed to the government to extend the Trader Money programme of the Federal Government to them if it is not a fraud.Corroborating that, Miss Akpabio and Mrs Ifeoma Sunday at the Ibadan processing cluster said they had put down their names and even attended seminars on government loans, but they had not got any from the government.

They called for intervention on storage, processing and financial facilities from the government, NGOs and well-to-do Nigerians to boost the businesses and contribute to food security, self-sufficiency and food safety of the country by adding value to agricultural crops in more conducive and safer environments. Pa Ibagun said the government should help deepen the value chain by facilitating exports of garri, saying they were restrained by low demand and lack of off-taking of the products.Facilitating for export, however, demands that the government should emplace a standard processing environment where processors could meet regulatory requirements. This will facilitate not only foreign exchange earnings for these farmers and processors but also save the country from the burdens of diseases emanating from food poisoning and food-borne infections.