The Toothpick Project
40 million farms in Africa are facing a huge, yet little known, threat to food security: Striga. This weed looks innocent with its purple blooms but it can kill 20-100% of the crops it infests, leaving smallholder farmers with little food.
A biological solution with great impact
The main objective of the Toothpick Project is to create a biological solution to this problem. Originally developed at Montana State University by Dr David Sands, the technology uses specifically selected fungal strains to fight Striga. These fungal strains specifically attack the weed, rather than the crop, allowing farmers to treat striga-infested fields without using chemical herbicides.
During a pilot project in Kenya, farmers planted rice substrate inoculated with the fungal FOXY T14 strains together with the maize crop seeds. By the end of the growing season, crop yield increased by 42-56%; not only does this amount contribute to food self-sufficiency, but it also provides farmers with the opportunity to boost their income by selling the surplus crop.
The Toothpick Company
In 2016, Welthungerhilfe launched a pilot social enterprise project in Kenya, and in 2018 the Toothpick Company Limited was registered as part of this sustainability strategy. There are currently 419 demonstration plots in western Kenya to familiarise farmers with the technology and show its impact. Product registration in Kenya is underway in order to create the product Kichawi Kill (the trademarked and registered name of FOXY T14) by spring 2020. The Toothpick Company is an example of a public-private partnership, working closely with both Welthungerhilfe and the Kenya Agriculture & Livestock Research Organization.
With funding support from Dr Peter Lüth and the DBU (German Environmental Foundation) Welthungerhilfe launched the Kenyan Toothpick Project in 2017. As one of the four lead shareholders of the Kenyan Toothpick Company Limited, a Welthungerhilfe representative sits on the board of directors and serves as the board chair. The Toothpick Company was Welthungerhilfe’s first shareholder participation in a social enterprise, setting the precedent for us to invest in other enterprise ventures.
The Toothpick Project answers some common questions they have been asked by people interested in their technology and company.
Why just in Africa?
Biocontrol has 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 mechanisation, etc.). And we are starting with a crisis.
Weeds are a problem everywhere and chemical herbicides have encountered serious and recurrent obstacles of resistance, environmental and human exposure issues. We anticipate that success in Africa will lead to game changing adoption of bioherbicides elsewhere. We have dedicated over a decade of research in Africa, with successful proof-of-concept trials conducted in 2014-2015. 40 million farmers suffer from this Striga problem. With the scientific infrastructure firmly in place in Africa, we'll have the ability to tackle other weeds and other continents.
Is this a permanent solution?
No. Change is constant and we would be fools to think our solution is a silver bullet.
Promisingly, we are seeing persistence of our treatment over time. In fact, at our original research plots (they've been untreated for years), Striga is no longer present and crops are doing well. Our scientist couldn't even get Striga to grow there when he planted Striga seeds. We haven't conducted a longitudinal study yet but over the next five years we should have a better understanding of how farmers should schedule their treatments for the greatest benefit at the lowest cost.
The Striga weed system is going to rebel. Therefore, we need to keep monitoring the system for genetic reversals. We are doing our best to predict and prevent Striga work-around by using a cocktail of strains. This is also why we will be introducing new strains – and regional strains – every few years. This is also why we suggest farmers use everything they can to fight Striga, including Striga-resistant seeds and fertiliser.
The emergence of wheat as a host for Striga emphasises the importance of this control method not just in Africa. As far as we know, only wheat fields in Sudan have Striga – but if it spreads, we’ll have a huge problem on our hands.
We are also looking at scientific infrastructure's ability to address change. We aren’t patenting a glyphosate-type of solution and keeping it unchanged and in the system for decades. Updates are part of our vision and strategy.
Why didn’t you get Phase II funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation despite a successful Phase I?
We were tremendously disappointed we were not granted a Phase II from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It seems it was a wrong-place-wrong-time situation: “due to a misalignment with our evolved strategy, as well as the fact that Kenya is not currently a focus country for our Agriculture initiative.” To date, the Gates Foundation has invested $31 million in Striga research and ours is the only project with an effective practical application. If an organisation is rejected for Phase II funding, they are not allowed to approach Gates again for the same project. The Sands Lab did get a second Gates Grand Challenges Exploration grant for a different idea: 2019 Plasmid Curing Ethiopian Barley for Antibiotic Resistance.
56.5% increase was in controlled field trials. But what is the real story?
All Striga farms have seen an increase in yield when using our treatment, not only the controlled field trials. But, sometimes it is only 4%. And sometimes it is 300%. One of our partner NGOs did their own small trial and the yield increased between 35-85%. One of the recent trials conducted by a 3rd party implementer for regulatory approval in Kenya showed 20-40%. These variations can be attributed to a variety of factors: flooding, drought, poorly placed trials (partially shaded), aberrant implementers, the infestation rate of Striga, etc. Perhaps the most telling story is that some of our implementers on our early plots saw the trial successes and “self appropriated” some of the treatment to use on their home fields!
How will we enable village-level scaling up without the risk of other fungi growing on the media?
Pivot alert: Our original plan was to have every farmer making her own inoculum. One of our early trials failed due to contamination by the farmer inadequately sterilising the container. We also found that the farmers prefer working in groups (family/neighbours, farmer organisations) and naturally created a networked inoculum-production system. Therefore, using these observations, we have developed an inoculum production system to minimise risk. At the village-level, we are training and certifying inoculum producers. The production process has reduced all points of contamination to a bucket swabbed with ethanol. The inoculum producer sterilises the bucket and, by using a device we have manufactured (see photo), they can inoculate in a fully antiseptic way without ever having to expose the substrate to contamination. The system was designed for dirt floors and no plumbing – but it is sophisticated enough for a very effective transfer. We’ll be posting our training video in the coming months!
This revised community-based system expanded our vision. We now have a training programme for farmers so they can start an inoculum production agribusiness (yes - village-based economic development!). The training includes inoculum production as well as agribusiness development.
Can Fusarium species affect animals, water systems, fisheries, or immune-depressed people?
The first thing to remember is that Fusarium exist in the wild. In fact, we sourced the strains we are using from a field in Western Kenya (and other countries will source their own local strains). Fusarium are local and they are all around – not causing harm to people, water, or animals. We’ve conducted tox-ecotox tests at both Virginia Tech and University of Nairobi and have found no known toxins. We are conducting DNA analysis with a partner in the Netherlands which will tell us more about the genetics related to toxins and horizontal gene transference. The most common issue with a different kind of Fusarium is that it can cause eye infections in contact lens wearers, and some immunocompromised people get sinusitis allergies - most frequently caused by Fusarium solari (f. solari has the greatest association with toxins). Fusarium oxysporum has caused catheter-related infection in people with extremely compromised T-cell conditions (demonstrated with a Fusarium oxysporum specific to tomato plants). As you can read in this literature review, Fusarium oxysporum has caused concerns in extremely rare and limited cases documented (<24) over decades.
How is this project sustainable?
Our project in Kenya is a social enterprise model. Fortunately, our product is inexpensive and farmers can see a good return on their investment. By keeping our purchase price at cost (including our manufacturing, lab management, marketing, and distribution costs), we can operate as a sustainable business once we reach scale. This is a clear path.
Regarding ongoing research for new weeds and new approaches, we are hoping that funding agencies will start redirecting some of the funding requests to include bioherbicide research (currently, most RFPs focus on crop breeding, crop rotation strategies, soil fertility, and chemical applications).
How do we reach enough farmers?
We are reaching farmers through partnerships with established NGOs, CBOs (community-based organisations), government extension programmes, and informal farmer groups. We are holding trainings through agri-business associations. We have demonstration plots (over 400 in 2019) and field days, promoted in villages through established groups, radio, and posters. There is a viral social component at play: on our 500 trials farms, 368 neighboring farmers signed up to be on the waiting list after the first season. The word is spreading! Please contact us to learn how you can treat your farm in Western Kenya in 2020.
We are trying to be a healthy blend of ambition and reason. We don’t work in isolation. We rely on feedback from partners. If you are affiliate with any farmer groups in Striga regions, please email us so we can include you in our outreach.
What agreements do we have with national and regional government, NGO, and local farmer groups?
Our project has an agreement with Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization and we are renewing it for 2020. We have a mutual benefit and enjoy a Private:Public Partnership. There is a formal partnership and relationship between Welthungerhilfe and The Toothpick Company Ltd. (their Secretary General serves on our board and their Kenya Country Director is our Board Chair). We have an MOU with Montana State University (and Dr David Sands is a professor at MSU). We have cooperative agreements with our science team members from research centers in Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, and Mali. These research centres have signed commitment letters allowing their researcher to work with us in our shared goal to manage Striga.
What about intellectual property?
The patent on the enhanced virulence selection technology expired this year: patents.justia.com/patent/6673746. There are no royalties. We hold decades of experience and are sharing that with our science team. The name Kichawi Kill is trademarked.
In Africa, patents have to be filed in every single country. And then, they have to be monitored and policed in every country. We don’t want to be bound by patents that will be outdated in a few years – the advantage of our technology is that we can always make new and improved versions.
What other impacts should be addressed in order to scale up this project?
There are many things to consider and integrate as we deploy this new technology – regions, crops, farming styles, climate change, fungus persistence, integrated pest management, etc. This is why we’ve built a team who brings diverse knowledge and experience to the table. There are evaluation points throughout – and benchmarks that include, for example, “are the strains we use on Striga in maize also as effective on Striga in sorghum or millet?” "What locally-sourced village-level inoculum substrates will be as effective as rice?" These are tests built into our next year of research and evaluation. We are also concerned with social impact which involves longitudinal evaluation on systemic change (women’s empowerment, education, adoption of more nutritious crops, etc.).
Is maize the greatest problem?
Maize is a problem. It doesn’t provide complete nutrition – and actually has very few essential vitamins/nutrients or high protein. Culturally, maize is served at every meal at the majority of homes across sub-Saharan Africa (a notable shift in popularity starting in the 1960s). It is one of the most produced cereal grains in the world. There are biofortification efforts to improve the nutritional quality…and there are drought-resistant varieties…but some say these are just band-aids on a gushing wound.
Predictions from CIMMYT and UN FAO are that maize production in Africa will be affected greatly by climate change. We see increasing crop failure related to climate change and there are great efforts to develop drought resistant crops. We recommend farmers use the crop seeds best suited for their climate conditions. Striga has been getting worse because there are no viable, adopted solutions, AND because it thrives in poor soil and drought. Therefore, we predict that mitigating Striga with a biological solution should actually flex with climate changes and other biological changes better than a chemical solution.
Where do we even start to address this dilemma? Our choice is to take a technology that is ready to launch right now to help farmers improve their maize production so they can grow the maize they need on less land…and then they can start growing more nutritious, valuable, and climate-suitable crops. We and our extension partners are applying an integrated approach – responding to new climate variables, improving nutrition, revitalising soil, reducing pollutants, boosting economic opportunities, focusing on women as leaders.
Would irrigation and fertilisers be a better solution to reduce Striga and improve crop yield?
Fertile soil reduces the impact of Striga. But, it doesn't fully restore the crop yield or address the Striga seed bank in the soil (Striga seeds can sit dormant for 50 years). Additionally, fertiliser is expensive (not to mention that soil testing is cost prohibitive...an important reason for local farmer groups to share knowledge on conditions and solutions). We recommend farmers build up their soil fertility using fertiliser, manure, compost, etc. However, we acknowledge that Striga is also the most immediate barrier for resource-poor farmers. Therefore, with limited resources that don't allow all options, our recommendation is to treat the Striga and then invest in fertilisers, quality seeds, and irrigation. We are also aware of the concerns related to inappropriate fertiliser use and the environmental impact of sourcing fertiliser.
Irrigation is also cost prohibitive, particularly if a farmer has Striga. We've observed that if farmers are investing in this type of infrastructure, their first choice is actually a mechanised Jab planter or a manual rotary planter.
What if small scale farmers focused on higher-value crops and let large production farms that have better access to chemical pesticides grow the maize?
This is an interesting idea and if farmers' number one priority wasn't to feed their family, it could be feasible. However, the very nature of subsistence farming is survival. Farming is already a risky career...which seems even riskier if you are growing a higher-value crop that requires a market position so that you can then purchase maize. What we have found with our farmers is that if they can get higher yield, they can then implement "Plan B" – introducing other crops that have higher nutritional advantages. We are trying to help farmers get back on their feet. Organisations such as One Acre Fund have told us that they haven't focused on farmers with Striga-infested fields – because they are a poor investment due to their inability to turn inputs into subsistence. There is considerable research being put into improving the nutritional value of these staple crops (biofortification). It may prove better to change the nutritional content of maize varieties rather than to change the century old culture of food.
This question also brings up another challenge: the market. Small scale farmers don't have a lot of power in the commodity market and prices are dictated by seasons (a huge disadvantage to farmers who have to sell at a low price due to inability to safely store surplus grain...but then have to buy at the end of the hunger season when the price is high).
Do we know the long-term repercussions of adding new bacteria or fungi strains to the environment?
We are not adding new fungi strains. We are using locally-sourced fungi strains. Fusarium exists in the environment naturally and has for millions of years.
Due to the Nagoya Protocol that limits the transfer of pathogens across borders, we are focusing our efforts on using locally-sourced strains in each country rather than exporting the Kenya strains across the continent.
It is also important to remember that Striga is invasive. What we generally see with invasive weeds is that they are far more devastating in their migrated location because the natural inhibitors (fungi, insects, animals, climate) do not exist in the new location.
How do we control the quality of the fungal strains?
All of the primary inoculum is grown in our dedicated lab at the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization – Katumani. Our dedicated scientist runs procedural checks on efficacy. We have a team of two lab techs to assist our lab manager and the team will grow as we near capacity. We have found that toothpicks stored in a sterile drinking straw and stored at room temperature have at least a five-year efficacy period.
Seriously, how long is this going to take? OR, why don’t you slow down...focus on Kenya?
Regulatory procedures are a greater barrier than the scientific selection or farmer adoption. We will need to register the locally-selected product in each country. In Kenya, these regulatory steps have taken over four years so far. This is why (despite recommendations from business advisors who said we should succeed in Kenya before we try anywhere else) in 2018 we started training scientists to get the ball rolling in eleven other countries. Scientists experienced with the Striga problem from 18 other countries have expressed interest in this novel way to control Striga and we plan to provide them with the training. In 2020-2021, in cooperation with the Kansas State Fusarium Workshop team, we will train as many scientists as possible, funding permitting.
How could we get this to farmers faster?
- Training more scientists will bring more brains to the game - allowing us to work on spore selection and efficacy more quickly.
- Regulatory harmonisation in regional trade centres would allow us to register in 5 trade centres rather than 18 countries (this would provide a huge cost savings…which means less time needed to raise money).
- Identifying strains in each country isn’t a problem. But, our Kenya strains were isolated only 50km from Uganda. We could expedite some of these close border relationships by working within the Nagoya Protocol to create pathways for pathogen sharing. Countries we are working in that haven’t signed the Protocol include Tanzania, Nigeria, and the US. We haven’t quite figured out all the logistics related to Nagoya Protocol (if you are an expert, please let us know).
- DNA analysis will validate other toxicology reports and gene transfer capacity.