Firm tackles food insecurity with Striga weed bioherbicide

The invasive striga weed.  

Photo credit: Photo | pool

What you need to know:

  • The Toothpick Company supplies farmers with Kichawi Kill, a host-specific active agent that kills Striga.

laire Sands Baker's path wasn't always destined for bioherbicides and battling the tenacious Striga weed. Her career traversed the social enterprise and environmental landscapes, driven by a desire to foster collaboration and positive change. But to her, The Toothpick Company resonated differently; It is deeply personal.

Claire's father, Professor Emeritus David Sands, a dedicated plant pathologist, microbiologist, and agronomist, developed a bioherbicide technology for decades. He learned of the devastation Striga wreaked on Kenyan farms through his brother.

"My uncle was volunteering in a hospital in Western Kenya where he learned about the Striga problem and thought my dad's technology could be utilised,” Claire told the Business Daily.

Sh5 billion crop loss

Striga (Striga hermonthica), an invasive parasitic weed that attacks the roots of staple crops like maize, sorghum, and millets, causes yield losses of 20-100 percent for affected farms. It thrives in poor soils and erratic weather patterns, plaguing over 40 million farms across sub-Saharan Africa and causing an estimated $9 billion in crop loss annually.

The parasitic plants produce thousands of tiny seeds that can remain dormant in the soil for up to 20 years, making them extremely difficult to eradicate.

In Kenya, the weed infests approximately 340,000 hectares of land. In the Western region where the weed is common, maize yield losses have totaled over Sh5 billion annually ($38 million), Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) Director-General Eliud Kireger once reported. A public-private collaborative effort with Kalro made Kenya the ideal spot for the Toothpick Company to launch its pilot programme.

A scientific twist

With the research starting in 2007, and the enterprise officially established in 2018, the Toothpick Company takes a unique approach to weed control. It utilises strains of endemic Kenyan fungus selected explicitly for their overproduction of specific amino acids. This builds on two vital scientific concepts: amino acids can inhibit plant growth, and a host-specific plant pathogen can target particular weeds.

The company's innovation lies in selecting these fungal strains to manufacture the inhibitory amino acids. Claire, now director and co-founder, says this research combination has never happened before.

The herbicide development

The journey began with collaborative research between Montana State University and Kalro.

Henry Sila Nzioki, a research scientist from Kalro-Katumani, played a pivotal role in running lab and field trials. After over a decade of work, Nzioki submitted the regulatory dossier for Kichawi Kill to the Kenya Pest Control Products Board as a joint registration between The Toothpick Company and Kalro.

Claire saw a chance to carry out her father's legacy work in this collaborative effort. She explains that the team was ready to launch an enterprise after solid proof of concept trials in 2014–2015.

"My experience with strategic and stakeholder development gave me a great fit for the team," she says.

The Toothpick Company now supplies farmers with an environment-safe biocide, Kichawi Kill, a host-specific active agent that kills Striga but leaves other plants unharmed.

The invasive striga weed.  

Photo credit: Photo | pool

Kichawi Kill helps restore farmers' crop yields, with an average increase of 42-56 percent in maize production. Claire explains that the company's name, 'Toothpick,' commemorates the company's humble beginnings.

"We initially used toothpicks to deliver our primary inoculum to the villages."

Building a sustainable future

The path to commercialisation, completed in June 2023, was challenging. The first significant milestone – regulatory approval for their live inoculum product – took six years to achieve.

"We had a range of challenges with our trials, including drought, fall armyworm, negligent third-party implementers, and Covid," Claire continues, "It is exciting to see that our mission has remained consistent for 15 years."

With the first product approved, the team focused on the next iteration: a seed coating. This new formulation, developed by Dr Peter Lüth, Loise Kioko, and Dorcas Kemboi, offered a 60 percent price reduction and a three-month shelf life. This innovation improved accessibility and addressed the challenges of earlier methods.

Most expensive cost item

The Toothpick Company's most expensive part of operations is achieving its mission of education, which the field team carries out through field days and farmer meetings. The bioherbicide technology requires a simple seed-coating process. Users must therefore learn to distinguish the benefits of this technology compared to synthetic chemical herbicides.

"Even though our product is easy to use, education is always important as we introduce a new innovation, and encourage both soil and human health," Claire advises.

Claire, however, emphasises the need for patient funders who understand the importance of navigating the regulatory landscape. "Every African country has biocontrol regulations, presenting a time-consuming and expensive hurdle."

The team of scientists

With a dedicated team of scientists from 14 African countries, the start-up envisions a future where Kichawi Kill empowers farmers across sub-Saharan Africa to manage Striga for food security.

They aspire to see a shift from synthetic chemicals to biocontrol solutions around the world, placing African scientific expertise at the forefront of this agricultural revolution.

"There is a lot of pressure on us to get it right, for both the farmers and the future of bioherbicide development globally," she says.

Getting the right collaborations will boost the company. "We have ambitious goals, and having the right team members and partners in place will get us there," Claire concludes.

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