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When we talk about quality journalism, here is what we mean

The Star journalist Agatha Ngotho grabbed an interview with a senior government official. That alone means she is a well-connected scribe. The average reporter might take months to catch a Principal Secretary or never at all. Gava people always have a “busy schedule”, you understand?

Agriculture PS Paul Rono told Agatha his ministry had received information that some farmers were using “a white powder to dry maize.” Like any good government official, Rono threatened to take stern action.

Agatha told PS Rono, ‘Thank you very much, sir,’ and hurried off to Lion Place on Waiyaki Way, where the Nairobi Expressway starts (or ends, depending on where you are going). She hit the keyboard.

“I understand there is a dangerous powder which is sprayed on maize and within one hour all the maize has dried and it is hard. This is a harmful and dangerous substance farmers are using,” the PS said, according to Agatha’s story published on February 16.

“We intend to rein in on those individuals selling to farmers these harmful chemicals and substances. We also want to create awareness among farmers.”

What chemical are maize farmers are using? How does it exactly work? How dangerous is it? Can it kill people or livestock that eat the treated maize? Have any cases been reported? Where? Any tests done? Who supplies the chemical and under what name(s)? What are the most affected areas? What measures has the government taken to end the practice and protect maize consumers?

Agatha did not ask these questions, going by her story. Nor did her editors, who received her copy and approved it for publication under the heading, “PS warns farmers against using harmful chemical to dry maize.”

Agatha instead proceeded to tell “smart people” who read The Star about 100 grain dryers Gava procured last November to help farmers cut post-harvest losses in 15 maize-growing counties.

But The Star editors noted the seriousness of PS Rono’s allegation and wrote an editorial on the issue. “Reports that some farmers are now using an unknown substance to dry maize is a matter of serious concern,” the paper said.

“This exposes hundreds of Kenyans whose staple food is ugali, which is a by-product of maize, to poisoning.” (Well, good old ugali isn’t a “by-product” of maize.) “Over time, this will lead to increased illness and death. The government must therefore quickly move in to deal with those selling the substance.”

Twelve days after Agatha’s report, the Daily Nation published a story headlined, “How farmers use dangerous chemicals to dry their maize”. Even from this headline alone, you sensed that the story was going to answer the questions Agatha didn’t ask PS Rono or investigate beyond “he said”.

Nation reporter Gabriel Kudaka wrote about abuse of pesticides to reduce moisture content in maize to meet the legally required level of 13.5 per cent. The chemicals also “whiten rotten maize, making them appear clean for purchase.”

Kudaka identified one of the chemicals in use as Nova Super Blues Cross, a registered pesticide for controlling weevils. A farmer in Trans Nzoia told him half-a-kilo of the powder can dry over 20 bags of maize to save time and cut costs.

The Nation journalist contacted the Pests Control Products Board, whose CEO Fredrick Muchiri told him using Nova Super Blue Cross is abuse of the pesticide that could harm consumers. Muchiri said unscrupulous traders had even created a counterfeit known as Nora Blue Cross to confuse farmers and mint money.

Two researchers at the University of Eldoret told Kudaka they had tested the pesticide and found that while it appears to reduce moisture content it doesn’t do so permanently. Once the treated grain is stored, the moisture content returns to what it initially was, providing favourable conditions for the growth of dangerous substances such as aflatoxin.

Uasin Gishu chief officer for Agriculture Elphas Kiprop confirmed the chemicals used to artificially dry maize can have “serious consequences on health.”

“It is not advisable to shell maize then use powder to dry it. You will be risking lives because the same maize will end up as flour in supermarkets,” Ian Kemboi, a trader in Moiben, told the Nation.

At the border town of Sirare, Migori County, Tanzanian traders told journalist Kudaka that Kenyan maize is known to contain chemicals. “We survive by the grace of God because we eat food that is not safe. Maize from Kenya has a lot of chemical substances,” a trader said.

Now, you decide. Who between Agatha Ngotho of The Star and Gabriel Kudaka of the Nation did excellent journalism? And – the ‘importanter’ question – who between the two media houses has better editorial quality assurance?

See you next week!

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