The Toothpick Project
40 million farms in Africa are facing a huge threat to food security: Striga. This parasitic weed looks innocent with its purple blooms but it can cause enormous damage of up to 100% to the crops it infests, leaving smallholder farmers with little food and income.
+++ News: New biopesticide to fight Striga approved for commercialization +++
After a dozen years of research and testing, the biological herbicide Kichawi KillTM was approved for commercial use against Striga (commonly known as Kichawi, witchweed) by the Kenya Pest Control Product Board (PCPB) on 26 February 2021. Striga is one of the worst pests threatening food security in sub-Saharan Africa. It attacks the roots of crops such as maize, sorghum and millet, reducing crop yields by 20-100%. In a first step, the fungus-based product is now being made available to farmers in western Kenya.
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 the Montana State University by Prof. David Sands, the technology uses specifically selected fungal strains to fight Striga. These fungal strains are harmless to humans and animals and specifically attack the weed rather than the crop, allowing farmers to treat striga-infested fields and secure a good yield of their staple food crop.
During a pilot project in Kenya, farmers planted rice substrate inoculated with the fungal FOXY T14 strains together with the maize crop seeds. At the end of the growing season, crop yields increased by more than 50 % on average compared to untreated plots; this amount not only contributes to food self-sufficiency, but also offers farmers the opportunity to increase their income by selling the surplus crop.
Welthungerhilfe’s Toothpick Project was announced as one of the 50 Best Small Businesses of the “Good Food for All” competition.
The Toothpick Company
In 2016, Welthungerhilfe launched a pilot project as a social enterprise in Kenya, and in 2018 the Toothpick Company Limited was registered as part of this sustainability strategy. In over 500 demonstration plots in western Kenya farmers were familiarized with the technology and experimented its impact. After 3 years of efficacy trials the product registration in Kenya is now granted for the product Kichawi Kill (the trademarked and registered name of FOXY T14 in Kenya). The Toothpick Company is an example of a public-private partnership, working closely with Welthungerhilfe, the researchers in Montana and the Kenya Agriculture & Livestock Research Organization.
The future strategy is to scale up the Toothpick Project approach, initially in western Kenya, with plans to expand to other regions and countries in Africa in the near future.
In the next years we aim to expand the capacity of the Toothpick Company Ltd. to establish a functional last mile distribution system from lab-to-field to achieve easy and cost-effective technology access for the farmers. We will train village-entrepreneurs to become community-based inoculum producers, and the Toothpick Company will ensure their access to the Fusarium inoculum so that they can sell the final product to farmers in good quality at an affordable price.
For a longer-term perspective, a network of African biocontrol scientists is build up by Prof. Sands to transfer the bioherbicide technology from our pilot project in Kenya to other Striga-diseased countries.
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 three lead shareholders of the Kenyan Toothpick Company Limited, a Welthungerhilfe representative sits on the board of directors and serves as the board chair. The other board members are Dr Peter Lüth and Claire Baker Sands, the daughter of Prof. David Sands. 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 that have been asked by people interested in their technology and company.
Why just in Africa?
Biocontrol has to start somewhere. We strongly believe, that bioherbicides will become a robust method of weed control worldwide in the coming years. We are launching on farms that have no other choice or hope. And, we are starting with farming systems that are not already tied to the trendsof production in agriculture (chemical inputs, precision mechanisation, etc.). And we start 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.
Is this a permanent solution?
No. Change is constant and we would be foolish to believe that our solution is a silver bullet.
Promisingly, we see persistence of our treatment over time. In fact, at our original research plots (they have been untreated for years), Striga is no longer present and crops are doing well. Our scientist could not 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 fo get the greatest benefit at the least cost.
The Striga weed system will rebel. Therefore, we need to keep monitoring the system for genetic reversals. We do our best to predict and prevent Striga work-around by using a cocktail of strains. This is also why we will introduce new strains – and regional strains – every few years. This is also why we recommend that farmers do everything they can to fight Striga, such as applying proper soil fertilization – Striga is particularly dominant in soils with low organic matter content.
Striga is a threat not only for maize but for all grains. 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, Striga in wheat fields is so far only present in Sudan - but if it spreads, we have a huge problem ahead.
We also look at the ability of the scientific infrastructure to respond to change. Updates are part of our vision and strategy. First trials with seed coating (fixing the Fusarium directly to the seed) are already on the way and might be the preferred solution in the medium run.
How will we enable village-level scaling up without the risk of other fungi growing on the media?
Pivot alert: Our original plan was for each farmer to make their 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, based in these observations, we have developed an inoculum production system to minimise the 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, using a device we made (see photo), they can inoculate in a fully antiseptic way without ever exposing 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 oxysporum exists 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 the University of Nairobi and have found no known toxins. The most common issue with a different kindof 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 (detected 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 over decades (<24).
How is this project sustainable?
Our project in Kenya is based on the foundation of an enterprise, not just a project that runs for a few years. The founded Toothpick Company Ltd. Is supposed to become financially self-reliant. Fortunately, our product is inexpensive and farmers can see a good return on their investment. By keeping our purchase price at a level that covers the costs (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.
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 500 by 2020) and field days, promoted in villages through established groups, radio, and posters. There is a viral social component at play: on our trials farm. The word is spreading!
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 the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization and we are renewing it for 2020/21. 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. (a representative from the Welthungerhilfe office in Nairobi is Board Chair of the company). We have a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Montana State University (Dr David Sands is a professor at MSU). We have cooperative agreements with the scientific advisor Dr Peter Lüth which includes regular visits and trainings to Kenya and support in technology development.
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 have built a team which brings diverse knowledge and experience to the table. There are evaluation points throughout – and benchmarks that include questions like, “Are the strains we use against 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, and possibly cheaper?" 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 does not provide complete nutrition – and actually lacks some essential vitamins/nutrients and is low in protein. Culturally, maize is served at every meal in most households in 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 by CIMMYT and UN FAO are that maize production in Africa will be severely affected by climate change. We see increasing crop losses 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 worsened 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 keep pace with climate and other biological changes better than any chemical solution.
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 addresses the Striga seed bank in the soil (Striga seeds can sit dormant for 50 years). Additionally, fertiliser is expensive. 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 do not allow all options, our recommendation is to treat the Striga and then invest in fertiliser, quality seeds, and irrigation.
Irrigation is also costly, especially if a farmer has Striga. W have 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.
Do we know the long-term repercussions of adding new bacteria or fungi strains to the environment?
We do not add new fungi strains. We use locally-sourced fungi strains. Fusarium occurs naturally in the environment and has done so for millions of years.
Due to the Nagoya Protocol that limits the transfer of pathogens across borders, we focus on using locally produced strains in each country rather than exporting 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 partner lab at the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization – Katumani. A dedicated scientist runs procedural checks on efficacy. A team of two lab technicians assist the lab manager and the team will grow as we near capacity. We have found that inoculated dowels stored in a sterile surrounding at room temperature have at least a five-year efficacy period.