Hildegarde Dukunde brings innovative solution to safeguard maize storage

By Jennifer Johnson

Hildegarde Dukunde has a mission: to make sure the DryCard, an inexpensive device developed by researchers at the University of California-Davis (UC Davis) to determine if food is dry enough to prevent the growth of mold and harmful aflatoxins, reaches as many farmers as possible. The 28-year old Rwanda native works as a sales associate in agrifood business and was recently recognized for her innovative work by the 2019 Maize Youth Innovators Awards – Africa, winning in the “change agent” category at an awards ceremony in Lusaka, Zambia on May 9.

These awards, an initiative of the CGIAR Research Program on Maize (MAIZE), recognize the contributions of young women and men below 35 years of age who are implementing innovations in African maize-based farming systems. This is the second year of the awards, and the first time to be held in Africa. In a recent interview, Hildegarde explained the motives behind her work and approach.

Hildegarde Dukunde poses with her award at the 2019 MAIZE Youth Innovators Award Ceremony. Photo: Jerome Bossuet.

Q: How did you first begin working with DryCard technology?

A: My manager studied at UC Davis and heard about this new technology they developed that could help protect farmers from mold and aflatoxins in an efficient and inexpensive way, and decided to bring it to Rwanda. He trained me, and in turn I found that I really enjoyed going and training local farmers in this useful technology.

The first time they tried it, the farmers thought it had to be magic! They couldn’t believe that something that cost so little, only US$1-$2, could work so well. They have seen very good results. The DryCard is an ideal technology for smallholder farmers because not only is it inexpensive, it is very easy to use, and can be used multiple times as long as it does not get wet. In addition, it can be used to check the dryness of any type of grain or dry food. It is very important to ensure that food is sufficiently dry before storage because otherwise it can develop mold or aflatoxins—affecting farming families’ health and food security.

Q: What motivates you to continue bringing this technology to smallholder farmers?

A: The farmers really like the technology and inspired me to continue, especially as aflatoxin is a very bad problem in my region. Aflatoxins are harmful compounds that are produced by the fungus Aspergillus flavus, a mold commonly found infecting crops such as maize, both in the field and in storage. Exposure to aflatoxins can lead to impeded growth, liver disease, immune suppression, cancer and even death. It also affects farmer livelihoods and the global economy—Africa loses an estimated US$670 million in rejected export trade annually due to contamination by aflatoxins. I felt inspired to use this technology in my region to help farmers prevent aflatoxin contamination.

As my region has a long rainy season it is often difficult for farmers to determine if their maize is completely dry before storage, and they used to frequently store maize before it was dry, putting them at risk of consuming aflatoxin contaminated food or being unable to sell their harvests. With the DryCard, we can be sure the food is dry and they can safely store their food.

Q: What are your goals for the future?

A: To bring the DryCard technology to other countries in Africa and train farmers how to use it, so that they can receive the benefits as well. I hope that one day everyone can know about this technology so that they can prevent mold and aflatoxin contamination in maize.

Q: What advice do you have for other young people interested in working in agriculture and maize based systems?

A: Many youth think that agriculture is for the old, or that it is only for men, but it is very important that young people, especially girls, get involved in agriculture as they can do big things. The youth must continue to create new things and innovate in agriculture in order to progress and see results.

Hildegarde Dukunde receives the 2019 MAIZE Youth Innovators Award – Africa in the category of change agent. Photo: Jerome Bossuet.

2019 MAIZE Youth Innovators Awards, DryCard, Maize, MYIA 2019, Rwanda