In Kenya, Using Fungi to Fight a War on Weeds

In Kenya, Utilizing Fungi to Combat a Struggle on Weeds


The Toothpick Firm turns fungi into bioherbicide to battle Striga, a devastating “grasp weed” that has devastated an estimated 40 million farms in Africa.


When Lillian Makokha’s farm revealed its curse, it got here within the type of fuschia-purple flowers—a plant referred to as oluyongo or kayongo in western Kenya. These flowers have been round since Makokha was born, however lately they’ve far surpassed different pests and ailments of their destructiveness. In 2019, her 3.5-acre plot, which ought to have produced as much as 25 90-kilogram baggage of maize per acre, produced solely six. It wasn’t sufficient to feed her eight-person family, not to mention promote for much-needed money.

The curse was merciless in its persistence: Different pests like Mimosa pudica, fall armyworm, and locusts cut back crop yield or are available in waves, however oluyongo destroys all the things, yr after yr. As quickly as maize was planted, their inexperienced stalks would yellow and bow right down to wholesome oluyongo. Makokha was suggested so as to add manure, hand-pull the weeds, or depart the land fallow, however these recommendations didn’t work, and she or he was working out of time. It solely takes one failed season for her household to go hungry, for her kids to drop out of college, or for her to spiral into debt, unable to repay loans for seeds and provides.

Lillian Makhoha vegetation maize at her farm. Makhoha has seen her yields enhance since collaborating with the Toothpick Venture.

Not like different weeds that merely compete with crops for sources, oluyongo is a parasitic root weed, leaching fluids and vitamins from its host. Recognized colloquially as witchweed, Striga (“witch” in Latin) is a genus of parasitic vegetation that has invaded almost each nation in Africa. The species with purple flowers that assault grass-family crops like these planted in Makokha’s area—maize, sorghum, millet—is Striga hermonthica. As quickly as its host crop is planted, Striga germinates and penetrates the host’s roots. By the point a farmer sees the Striga plant aboveground, the injury is finished. After flowering, every Striga plant can launch as much as 200,000 seeds, forming a harmful, invisible seed financial institution within the soil, awaiting the subsequent era of hosts.

Striga hermonthica impacts 50-300 million hectares, or an estimated 40 million farms, primarily in Africa. In western Kenya alone, Striga has resulted in roughly €50 million ($54.5 million USD) value of maize losses, largely for small-scale sustenance farmers. Agronomists have referred to as it “essentially the most severe worldwide parasitic weed.” Thriving in dry areas and poor soil—situations that may change into extra frequent as local weather change alters rains and drives farmers into debt—Striga is the “excellent storm” of a pest.

Farmer and Kichawi Kill evangelist Victoria Nafula examines her crops at her farm in Akwobait Village.

Striga may have modified the destiny of Makokha’s whole household. However then her good friend Charity informed her about Kichawi Kill, a product of Toothpick Firm. “Kichawi” means magic in Kiswahili, and, nicely, there was one thing magical about masking her maize seeds in a wierd rice combination that smelled like overripe bananas and will kill Striga. Determined, she tried it. And like magic, final season, her farm produced the 25 baggage of maize per acre it was alleged to. Makokha hasn’t stopped spreading the phrase about Kichawi Kill since.

Implausible Funghi: Nature’s arsenal of bioherbicides

In 2007, retired U.S. Navy surgeon Dr John Sands was volunteering at a hospital in Maseno, western Kenya, treating one extreme malnutrition case after the opposite. Annoyed by the futility of treating sufferers in such superior levels of malnutrition—and confused since there was no scarcity of fertile fields round—Sands requested his longtime good friend Florence Oyosi, an agronomist, what was occurring. She introduced him to a area of purple flowers and launched him to Striga. Sands thought, “I do know simply the man for this.”

Claire Sands Baker from the Toothpick Venture talks with Lillian Makokha, a Village Inoculum Producer of Kichawi Kill, at her dwelling in Bungoma County.

That man was his brother, Dr David Sands, a plant pathologist at Montana State College who has at all times been, in keeping with his daughter Claire Sands Baker (now Director of the Toothpick Venture), an “out-of-the-box thinker.” Amongst his many paradigm-shifting scientific discoveries, the one which led to The Toothpick Venture was his decades-long analysis on Fusarium oxysporum (“FOXY”), a soil-borne fungus. Over 200 types of FOXY are extremely selective, attacking just one particular plant. It’s a pure arsenal of potential bioherbicides.

The problem was creating a FOXY pressure that might kill Striga however not its hosts. Sands’ first step was to search out African scientists to guide the trouble, a search that led him to Sila Nzioki, a plant pathologist on the Kenya Agricultural Livestock Analysis Group. Along with Oyosi, Nzioki collected samples of wilted Striga in Maseno and located 17 totally different FOXY strains already of their roots. The Striga had succumbed to naturally occurring FOXY, killed by sure amino acids the fungus excreted. Nzioki and Sands recognized which amino acids have been lethal to Striga solely and located a key trio—L-leucine, L-tyrosine, L-methionine—that they mixed into FOXY-T14 (“T” for “trio,” 14 for 2014). That is the lively ingredient in what would, after Kenyan regulatory approval, change into The Toothpick Venture’s commercially distributed product, Kichawi Kill.

Analyzing dowels on the Toothpick Venture’s workplaces in Kakamega. The guidelines of the dowels include the important thing fungi in Kichawi Kill.

In 2013, The Toothpick Venture ran area trials with 500 members of Oyosi’s farmers’ group, referred to as the Liberty Farmer Initiative. The outcomes have been so astounding that Nzioki, Sands, Oyosi and Baker squinted on the spreadsheet: FOXY-T14 elevated crop yield by 56% within the lengthy rains planting season and 42% briefly rains. Yields elevated in 499 out of 500 plots. “That’s higher than chemical substances,” explains Pam Marrone, former CEO of agricultural biologicals firm Marrone Bio Improvements. “They’ve a virtually excellent win fee, and also you don’t see that fairly often!”

In these area trials, they examined FOXY-T14 alongside the opposite foremost Striga management answer in the marketplace: StrigAway, a seed coated with—and bred to be immune to—the chemical herbicide Imazapyr. However whereas farmers should buy StrigAway each season, FOXY-T14 persists within the soil, attacking Striga’s seeds era after era. After just a few consecutive seasons utilizing FOXY-T14, farmers reported Striga disappearing altogether. Not like the chemical herbicide, the non-toxic rice inoculum doesn’t require gloves, plus farmers can use no matter seeds they like—zone-specific and drought-resistant seeds, and even saved seeds. Kichawi Kill is a bioherbicide tailored for smallholder farmers.

(L) The Toothpick Venture’s Dorcas Kemboi speaks with a gaggle of farmers in Kakamega County, Kenya, in regards to the significance of Kichawi Kill. (R) Later, farmer Victoria Nafula addresses a neighborhood gathering in regards to the Toothpick Venture.

Toothpicks and Rice: Getting FOXY-T14 into the fingers of farmers

In April 2018, The Toothpick Venture director Baker formally registered its Kenya firm, Toothpick Firm Restricted. Headquartered in Kakamega, Toothpick Firm presently serves seven counties in western Kenya, the place Striga is most prevalent, using a workforce of eight and working on an working price range of $160,000. Its purpose to serve smallholder farmers has given Toothpick Firm a mission to develop a farmer-centric strategy to advertising and marketing and distribution. Farmers themselves carry out the function of manufacturing websites, Kichawi Kill evangelists, planting instructors, and Striga educators.

Victoria Nafula prepares to plant maize on her farm in Akwobait Village in Busia County.

Within the Kakamega lab, the FOXY-T14 mycelia are launched to a substrate, which appears to be like like a toothpick on a petri dish, therefore the group’s identify. The secondary inoculation is finished by village inoculum producers (“VIPs”), nearly all of whom are farmers themselves and 80% of whom are girls. The reside FOXY-T14 are launched to buckets of cooked, cooled rice, and after three days of incubation, the inoculum—a brownish, pungent rice combination—is able to distribute to farmers at 300 KES ($2.35) per bucket. The farmer coats every maize seed with the inoculum earlier than inserting it within the soil.

Past Kichawi Kill: A sustainable platform for bioherbicides

Though a lot of the world depends on chemical herbicides, these substances have confirmed dangerous to ecological and human well being. As of Could 2022, for instance, Monsanto has settled over 100,000 glyphosate (RoundUp) lawsuits associated to its carcinogenic results, doling out greater than €10.3 billion ($11.3 billion USD) in damages and fines. Regardless of the evident want for bioherbicides, the technical challenges of organic options can dissuade funding. “There hasn’t been a brand new mode of motion found for herbicides—which means a brand new class of herbicides—in 20- to 30 years,” says Marrone. “Innovation has been low on the chemical aspect, but everybody needs to get away from chemical substances. Discovering biologicals is admittedly essential proper now.” 

Baker, for her half, sees the Toothpick Venture as “a bioherbicide platform for the world.”. The purpose is to not cease at Striga hermonthica in western Kenya, Baker says, however to create constructing blocks for the event of different bioherbicides. They’ll, in flip, be capable to sort out meals insecurity, biodiversity loss, air pollution and toxicity in a wide range of contexts. “That’s the worldwide concept of the innovation of a bioherbicide,” she says, “all depending on host-specific virulent Fusaria.”

Lillian Makokha shows Kichawi Kill’s inoculum at her farm in Bungoma County, Kenya

For all of its future international potential, nonetheless, a very powerful metric is seen inside the modified fortune of a single household. After a few consecutive good harvests, Lillian Makokha has constructed a brand new home on her homestead, its new corrugated metallic roof nonetheless crisp and gleaming. The lengthy rains are coming quickly. The soil of her tilled fields lay ready, face-up within the sizzling solar. She’s prepared for the flood of Kichawi Kill orders she’ll obtain as soon as it’s time to plant. “This yr, we thank God,” says Makokha. The curse is gone.

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