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Shifting to Bioherbicides for Food Security: Fighting Africa’s Worst Weed with Game-changing Technology Designed by/for Smallholder Farmers

We envision using an innovative industry-shifting bioherbicide technology to fight the worst weed in Africa, starting in western Kenya.

Photo of Claire Baker

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

The Toothpick Company Ltd.

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

LEAD PARTNERS: Welthungerhilfe (German NGO), Kenya Agriculture & Livestock Research Organization, Montana State University, Biotech Investments LLC. DISTRIBUTION CBOs, totaling 700+ members: SIAYA COUNTY - Mahap Youth for Action Gp., Charles Ogola (Individual Producer), Siaya Institute of Technology, Nyabenge Farmers Gp., Timatek Women Gp., Maseno Life Field School. VIHIGA COUNTY: Liberty Initiators Network, Community Light Women Gp., Eshiandumba Nehema Poultry Self Help Gp., Echinga Widows Self Help Gp. KAKAMEGA COUNTY - Tuamuke Emalindi Farmers, Butere Bright Stars Self Help Gp., Ekambulia Guardians Welfare Assoc., Zion Miracle Widows Gp. BUNGOMA COUNTY - Kimwanga Action Women Gp., Smart Stewer Catering Self Help Gp., Tulienge Farmers Abe Center, Makutano Women Gp., Biamu Women Gp., Umoja B Self Help Gp. In 2017 we held a stakeholders meeting with 40 attendees including Kenya’s three biggest seed companies, FIPS-Africa, the Weizmann Inst, AATF, NGOs, and government agencies.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://www.toothpickproject.org/pilot-project

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Kakamega

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

Kenya

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Bungoma, Kakamega, Vihiga, Kisumu, and Siaya Counties (2019 population totals 6,276,919 people, 52% women and 48% men).

What country is your selected Place located in?

Kenya

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Our vision is one shared across three continents – with a focus on a Place with intense Striga weed infestation. 

Our History: In 2006, there was an unlikely connection made by a volunteer US doctor in Maseno, Kenya. After seeing patient after patient suffering from malnutrition, he wanted to get to the root of the problem. He asked his friend, Kenyan agronomist Florence Oyosi, to explain the cause of malnutrition to him. She showed him that their evil villain, the pretty parasitic Striga weed, was sucking all the life out of their maize. The doctor’s brother happened to be a world-renowned plant pathologist who had developed a way to use plant disease to protect crops. The brother, Dr. David Sands at Montana State University, traveled to Kenya, found Fusarium oxysporum wilt on diseased Striga weeds, and collaborated with a team of researchers at the Kenya Agriculture & Livestock Research Organization. The team isolated and selected the local strains of the fungus that would kill the weed. Then, with the community-based women’s agricultural group, Liberty Initiators Network, we tested distribution systems for smallholder farmers, led by Oyosi.

Trials were conducted for seven years, including Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded proof-of-concept trials on 500 farms for two seasons in 2014-2015. The technology was successful (paired-plot tests showed an increase of crop yield from 42-56% when using the treatment compared to the control). At this point our research was noticed by a German scientist and specialist in fungi manufacturing. He joined the team and brought Welthungerhilfe, the large German hunger NGO with a large Kenyan team and farmer groups.

Birthed from Kenya, the US, and Germany, in 2018 we created the Toothpick Company Ltd., a social enterprise based in Kakamega, Kenya. The goal of this organization is to take all the skills and efforts of the last decade and put them into sustainable action in a Place with a tremendous desire for a solution.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

We are focusing on the smallholder maize farmers in five counties in western Kenya. Smallholders in Kenya typically have under one hectare of land and grow maize and several other crops (legumes, possibly a mango or avocado tree, maybe sweet potatoes). Maize is the preferred staple crop in Kenya (58% of all crops). Under 10% of farmers use mechanization. Families average 2-3 livestock (chickens, cow) and farmers with Striga have an even lower livestock count. Under 5% of the land is irrigated. The farms are primarily worked by family labor rather than hired labor. Frequently neighbors/families will plant fields together, rotating through their fields to get the job done efficiently. In western Kenya it is estimated that over 20% of cropland is Striga-infested.

Climate change presents environmental challenges with unpredictable rains/drought. For example, farmers usually plant with the rains in February. This year it rained once - some farmers planted. Most farmers waited until the second rain...which didn't come until April. Planting delays cause distress related to food storage and food supply into this hunger season.

Our customers are categorized as poor/very poor. According to FAO (2015), Kenyan smallholder farmers average $1.4/day per person. Though we don't have specific references, we know that farmers with Striga are often the poorest of smallholder farmers due to annual pre-harvest crop loss. We even heard of one large ag extension NGO that doesn't really work with farmers with Striga-infested fields because, without a viable solution, it is a poor investment of the NGO resources.

It is reported that 85% of Kenyan maize farmers are women. Therefore, Striga weed is a gender-sensitive food security issue. Striga can also be associated to education: In our informal surveys, when we ask a farmer what she'd do if she earned income from her field, 100% of the farmers have said they'd pay school fees (tuition, uniforms, books) for their children. Additionally, malnutrition related to Striga crop-loss can have a negative impact on nutrition-related diseases such as malaria and HIV-AIDS. Farmers with less Striga tend to diversify with more nutritious crops.

75% of Kenyas rely on agriculture for all or part of their income. Population is rising, yet fewer youth are taking up farming due to a lack of inherited land, a lack of agricultural economic productivity, an unstable cereal market, low extension support, and to land being deserted due to Striga.

Our pilot company is based in Kakamega, Kenya. Striga is mostly devastating in Western Kenya. However, there have been reports of Striga starting to show up in fields in other regions.

Despite the dire situation related to Striga, malnutrition, and erratic weather related to climate change, the attitude also seems to be hopeful. After our first season of trials on 500 farms, 382 neighboring farmers signed up to be on the trial waiting list...hopeful that they'd have the opportunity to restore their farms.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

10249

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

6276919

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Striga (witchweed) is an increasingly destructive invasive parasitic weed on 40 million farms, affecting 300 million people, across sub-Saharan Africa. Attacking the roots of crops like maize, sorghum, millet, cowpea and upland rice, it depletes crop yield by up to 100%, resulting in a lack of sustenance (cereals provide 46% of calories) and income for farmers. Up to 50 million hectares of African croplands show Striga infestation, causing $9 billion in crop loss annually. Striga is considered the worst pest threat in African food security. Western Kenya has a high infestation rate with Striga is on over 217,000 hectares. 

Some Striga-management technologies exist but, they haven’t been widely adopted by farmers due to mismatches between technologies, socio-economic conditions, effectiveness, and availability. Weeding by hand or by chemical herbicides is too late to reverse damage. Imazapyr-coated hybrid maize seeds present concerns about toxicity (the company distributes it with gloves for the farmers) and has a very low germination rate (poor storage stability). Striga-tolerant crop cultivars, push-pull methodology, and improving soil fertility can improve crop yield but don’t restore full yield or address the soil’s Striga seed bank. Costs often exceed farmers’ economic means. 

Our Integrated Pest Management Approach:  Inspecting and identifying; Preventing with agronomic methods; Calculating economic value of inputs (hybrid seed, fertilizer, herbicide/bioherbicide, Fall Armyworm treatment, etc.); Employing tactics - combinations of approaches; Measuring impacts.

What happens if a farmer loses half their crop to Striga? Subsistence farmers are primarily growing for their family’s food. Surplus can be sold for income – to spend on education for their children, medicine, and farm inputs. No surplus means that these things must be sacrificed. The impact runs deeply: forfeiting education, particularly for girls, has been linked to younger maternal age, more children, and population growth. Farmers with heavy infestation of Striga sometimes desert their land. Farmers also have challenges storing their maize throughout the season, requiring them to sell at harvest when the price is low and then purchasing at the end of the hunger season when the price is significantly higher. Nutrition is also an issue – maize provides caloric intake but provides little nutrients or protein. If a farmer can productively grow more maize on less land, they can diversify their farm and grow more nutritious crops. 

Kenyan farmers are on the front line of climate changeGlobal climate models show the severity of both flooding and drought increasing through 2100. This challenges farmers and their understanding of agronomic best practices. Additionally, Striga is hearty and thrives in poor soil and drought – persisting as climate changes. The UNDP estimates that if a child in Kenya is born in a drought year, the likelihood of them being malnourished increases by up to 50%. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our vision is to approach a biological problem with a biological solution. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? In reality, this isn’t how the pest control world works. Today’s agriculture systems are dominated by chemical applications. But, we have a bio-herbicide solution – one of the first in the world.

Developed by Prof. David Sands at Montana State University, our technology uses local Kenyan fungus, Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. strigae, and selects three strains with enhanced virulence (they over-produce specific amino acids tyrosine, leucine and methionine) to kill Striga but not maize. It is host-specific and harmless to people and soil fauna. The resulting product is called FoxyT14 (trademarked in Kenya as Kichawi Kill).

FoxyT14 is a groundbreaking approach to Striga management. Grown on toothpicks (wood slices), the FoxyT14 fungal strains can be stored and delivered at low cost. At village-level, a producer places the fungi-coated toothpick in a locally sourced substrate (rice in an ethanol-swabbed, sterile, lidded container), agitating twice a day for three days. The farmer then adds 1.5 grams (a pinch) of the inoculated substrate per each crop seed planting hole.

In 2014-15, FoxyT14 was tested in paired plots on 500 smallholder farms in Kenya, showing an increase in maize yield by 42-56% (Gates Foundation Grand Challenges Exploration). FIPS-Africa conducted independent trials and saw yield increase of 35-85%. Regulatory 3rd-party trials' yields increased from 35-300%.

Our distribution system stimulates the economy at the village-level through certified Village-Based Inoculum ProducersEach Producer manufactures and distributes the rice inoculum for their farmer network. In 2020 (our 1st year of distribution), we will have 80 Producers, each distributing to 50 farmers (serving a total of 4,000 farmers). We currently have three full time Kenyan employees. In 2019, we had 419 demonstration plots in four counties, with 800 farmers attending organized field-days. We have three other distribution paths we’ll be testing in 2020-2021. One is a pop-up store where farmers can order their inoculum and pick it up along with other inputs like seeds and fertilizers. The second – which has the potential to reach a large number of farmers – is to work within existing farm input NGO systems. We’ll modify our Village-level production to fit within their structures, adding FoxyT14 to their services and allowing their farmers to achieve more success, enabling these farmers to benefit from the other services the NGOs provide such as more nutritious crops, fertilizer systems, irrigation, etc. The third is a fungi-coated maize seed (in development).

With a focus on women-based CBOs, we have engaged 20 CBO partners with a total of 700+ members, and trained 120 Ministry of Agriculture agentsIn addition, scientists from 12 countries have been trained in virulence-enhancement selection technology, creating a research team to expand use to other crops and geographies.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

There is a concern of a global scope. Chemical management systems are currently the leading solution for pest control. However, the industry is struggling: pests are increasingly resistant to the chemicals (there are super-weeds, like antibiotic-resistant super-bugs). Farmers and consumers are concerned about potential toxins on their food and in the environment. We envision a shift in pest management, mobilizing safer, more effective biological technology. We envision a biological solution for a biological problem.

Benefits to using virulence-enhanced Fusarium:

Host-specific – won’t harm other plants outside the target weed and the is no indication of host- jumping

Non-toxic (we aren’t replacing one bad product with another). Safe for farmers, consumers, and soils and water systems

• Synthetic products are losing consumer confidence (some banned in EU, Africa, etc.)

• Synthetic products are developing weed resistance

• Potentially a very competitive price

• They are self-replenishing (not diluted after application)

Product development is less expensive than synthetic development

Potential Cons to using virulence-enhanced Fusarium:

Host-specific – while also a positive attribute, a different Fusarium strain would have to be selected for every weed variety (unlike Glyphosate or other chemicals that will kill everything in the field)

Bio Intellectual Property is difficult to protect (if that is a priority)

• The competitive chemical input industry is huge and powerful

Researcher pool advancing this technology is small

The pros win! This must be invested in. Farmers have been waiting for years to reclaim their farms from the tight grip of Striga. Removing the irascible barrier will have tremendous impacts - all interconnected: growing enough maize to sustain the family; growing surplus to sell; using profits to invest in better farm inputs, medicine, and education; reclaim land previously deserted due to Striga; and diversify crops for better nutrition.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

We strongly believe that an effective solution has to be multi-faceted. Everything is inextricably connected. Our vision addresses all six interconnected themes. However, for clarity, we are separating them out in these explanations: 

The People and Culture: Striga is a gender-sensitive food security issue because the vast majority of maize farmers are women (85% in western Kenya). However, there is a gender gap in technology adoption. Our technology delivery system, using a cooked rice substrate, was developed by and with women agronomists, understanding and capitalizing on gendered skills and societal constraints. Women are interconnected with economy: there are many studies that identify women as a more reliable and responsible custodian of investments. 

Diets and Culture: When talking about culture, what is more essential than food? This is also an important question to address. Maize is the primary food source for western Kenya. However, it really isn’t a nutritious crop and doesn’t offer sufficient vitamins, nutrients, or proteins. Rather than forcing farmers to shift their entire food culture to a crop not impacted by Striga, we are working for a solution that maintains the culture of food, providing room for farmer choice. If farmers can restore their crop yield, they’ll be able to grow the maize they need and re-dedicate some land for more nutritious and valuable crops that can also benefit soil ecosystems. We’ve found that this regenerative concept jives with the strategies of NGOs, CBOs, and the Ministry of Agriculture. 

Environment: Currently, the leading Striga management product on the market is Imazapyr-coated maize seed. This product can kill Striga. However, it is distributed to farmers with gloves and farmers are expected to wash their hands after planting. This is an example of technology that was not developed for the consumer. In addition to potential toxicity, there is concern that Imazapyr can kill other crops that are not specifically bred to be Imazapyr-resistant. There are long-term implications of chemical herbicides on soil, water, flora and fauna. For example, RoundUp (glyphosate) was introduced in the 1970s. Today, there are over two dozen weeds that have developed resistance to glyphosate. Similar to the crisis we are seeing with anti-biotic resistance and super-bugs, the chemical approach to weed management is showing dire consequences. Our technology is a human-centered delivery design that uses fungi that is already in the field - sourced locally. Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. strigae has been tested (Virginia Tech and U. of Nairobi) and no known fusaria toxins have been found. As it has throughout history, Fusarium oxysporum persists in the local soil. This means that there is a longterm benefit to our treatment: in plots we treated for five years (2008-2013 and not since), our scientist couldn't get Striga to grow even with seed...and five years later, there is still no Striga. We haven't conducted longitudinal studies to determine the persistence factors, but not having to add a treatment every year forever is a very positive environmental and economical prospect. 

Economics: We have two economic impacts in our vision. First, our goal is for farmers to reduce crop loss. Across Africa, Striga is responsible for $9 billion in crop loss annually. We are starting in western Kenya where Striga is on 217,000 hectares with 20-100% crop loss – off of the tables of farmers and their families. If a farmer can increase her crop yield by 35%, (eg. going from nine to twelve 90kg bags), she'll be able to calculate a good return on her investment. Our current product price is based on the rice substrate (our team is actively researching less expensive alternatives to rice substrate). Beyond the initial price for our technology with the rice substrate, we can also consider a farmer's cost as they reduce treatment over the seasons, boosting its appeal to farmers. 

Our second goal is to boost village economies with a network of microbusiness agriprenuers. Employment is an important concern in a country where the workforce is expected to almost double in the next decade. Youth are migrating to urban areas and rural farming isn’t viewed as “sexy” or lucrative. However, if these youth can tap into a new industry and receive the production certification as well as training in business management skills, we envision a very positive impact on both farming and village economy. 

Technology: The global biocontrol industry is $34 billion/year. The herbicide industry is over 99.9% chemical control products. There have been other attempts using fungi in bio-herbicide applications. However, they haven’t been successful enough for practical use because the biological systems know better than to kill their host. Our technology selects for outlier spores selected off of locally-sourced wilted weeds. This virulence-enhanced selection technology is the key to successful biocontrol. Why launch this technology in Africa? We have to start some place. We strongly believe bioherbicides will develop into a robust way to control weeds globally. We are launching on farms that have no other choice or hope. And, we are starting with farm systems that aren’t already betrothed to production agriculture trends (chemical inputs, precision mechanization, etc.). And we are starting with a crisis. 

Policy: The biggest hurdle we’ve encountered is the registration process. We are forging a new path with very few other bioherbicide products to lead the way. And, due to regulations – particularly regulations like the Nagoya protocol (restricting the transfer of pathogens across country borders) – we’ll launch in Kenya and then start all over again in every country (isolating and selecting local strains, conducting regulatory trials, and in-country registration). There are good reasons to implement restrictions…but it is also cumbersome. We have been selected to be a part of a grant proposal to the World Trade Organization to look at harmonization of biocontrol registration within trade regions in Africa. Our Kenya launch will serve as a potential model for future biocontrol policy globally.

VISION:

We'd like to celebrate that this is a vision prize, not a modify-something-to-make-it-a-little-better prize. This is a ditch-the-status-quo prize. We envision a shift in the entire agriculture industry. We will undoubtedly get push-back from the dominant chemical industry. But we also know that the major chemical companies are aware of our innovation and keeping a keen eye on our progress. We are extremely excited to have built a strong team with a push for Public Private Partnerships. We are also excited that this launch is in Kenya, where farmers are in line to try our technology - giving hope that this will be a solution suited to them and successful. We are starting with farm systems that aren’t already betrothed to production agriculture trends (chemical inputs, precision mechanization, etc.). And we are starting with farmers who are empowered to be the front line of a movement. 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Email
  • Website
  • Prize partners
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Team (6)

Claire's profile
Heinz's profile
Heinz Peters

Role added on team:

"Welthungerhilfe"

Samson's profile
Samson Nduguti

Role added on team:

"Manager, Sales and Marketing, of Toothpick Company Ltd. Samson brings years of experience in agri-business. Located in Kakamega, Kenya."

David's profile
David Sands

Role added on team:

"Lead scientist, professor and researcher at Montana State University, co-founder. Sands is a world renowned expert in biotechnology, plant pathology, and biocontrol. He invented "virulence enhancement of fungi," the technology launched in this project."

Henry's profile
Henry Nzioki

Role added on team:

"Project Lead Scientist and Lab Director, Kenya Agriculture & Livestock Research Organization. Henry "Sila" has been working on this project for 10 years - working in collaboration with Montana State University to isolate the fungi strains, conduct pot/field trials, and coordinate the registration process. He continues to lead scientific processes, including manufacturing the primary inoculum, check efficacy, and make improvements to the delivery system (eg. substrates, thiram resistance, etc.)."

Thome's profile
Thome Josephine

Role added on team:

"Josephine is the project lead for Welthungerhilfe Kenya. She represents WHH on the Toothpick Company Limited's Board of Directors."

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Attachments (4)

Biocontrol References.pdf

Here are some links to biocontrol and Striga peer reviewed papers.

3 minute Toothpick promo.pptx

This is a quick powerpoint to walk through our process. The second slide is a video of one of our farmer's fields. If you've never seen a Striga field before, we encourage you to walk through Patricia's field...your heart will race. Imagine that field 40 million times.

Map graphic #1 pest threat.png

This map shows the spread and intensity of Striga (map based on image published in: Ejeta, G. & Gressel J. (eds) (2007): Integrating New Technologies for Striga Control. Towards Ending the Witch-hunt. World Scientific Publishing Co Pte Ltd.)

Frontiers Striga Biocontrol on a Toothpick 2016.pdf

Peer reviewed paper on the Kenya Proof of Concept. 500 farms, two seasons, paired plot trials. Funded by a Gates Foundation Grand Challenges Exploration grant.

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Very innovative Project all the best......

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