biological control technologies on maize seeds

Joseph Oduor a farmer from South Alego location in Siaya County in Western Kenya is a constantly disappointed man. Poor yields from farming maize over the years have demotivated him. His biggest challenge as with many other farmers in the region is pests and diseases that reduce yields during harvest.

According to statistics from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), maize accounts for 30−50% of low-income household expenditures in eastern and Southern Africa and 85% of its production is used as food. Joseph cannot afford to buy certified maize seeds. At Kshs. 300 (equivalent to USD 4) on average for a kilogram of certified seed, buying certified seed is prohibitive for smallholder farmers who have to do with less than USD 1.25 a day.

This also applies to use of pesticides, which for farmers like Joseph would mean digging deeper into their pockets for their already constrained resources. Pesticide use also creates further problems like health complications as not many smallholder farmers can afford the protective gear required and negative impact on the environment.

Joseph has to do with recycled maize seeds from previous harvests or seed borrowed from his fellow farmers. Traditionally in sub-Saharan Africa, up to 90% of smallholder farmers use recycled seeds. Due to poor storage practices farmers fail to get expected results.

Bio-Innovate’s project 7 on “Bio-enhanced seeds” is developing technologies for producing seeds and seedlings bio-enhanced with bio-control agents to reduce the impact of biotic and abiotic production constraints in crops, with the focus being to benefit resource-poor farmers. Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) working with Real IPM a private company are implementing the project. The biological controls or bio-pesticides are bacterial or fungal microorganisms that naturally control specific pests and diseases. In the case of this innovation, the bio-pesticides are produced and distributed in powder form with usage instructions. The famer produces a solution by mixing the powder with water which he or she coats the seeds prior to planting. The advantage of bio-pesticides over conventional inorganic pesticides is that they are less toxic, are pest specific, and decompose quickly.

Reduced pests and diseases translate to improved yields from the farms. In addition, certain bio-pesticides have proven to have properties that increase yields by improving the plants ability to burrow deeper for water and nutrients, a useful trait particularly in drought conditions.

Collins Wanyama the representative of Real IPM in Nyanza in Western Kenya has been in the heart of engaging farmers in the bio-pesticide on-farm trial runs. From his experience, farmers are very passionate about their work. However, they tend to stick to old practices some of which may be in variance with recommended crop management e.g. recycling seeds. The team has therefore found ways of injecting new ideas but cognizant of the tradition and habits of smallholder famers.

“The bio-pesticide solutions are highly scientific and explaining how they work is a challenge for field officers working with the farmers,” Collins added. “Also running field trials in the open farms and not in controlled environments like in greenhouses has proven to be daunting”.

In addition, there are the lengthy legislation procedures that need to be followed before the bio-pesticides can be commercialized. With all these challenges, Real IPM has a lot of ground to cover before the bio-pesticide can be available to all farmers who would need it.

In Mundika sub-location in Busia County, Lennox Barasa another maize farmer has been participating in the Real IPM field trials. So far he has participated in three trials, which according to him “offers an affordable alternative to use of pesticides in farming maize.” The Bio-Innovate Program is happy with the progress thus far. The collaboration between JKUAT and Real IPM has been rewarding. The team is also looking to apply this innovation to tomato and eggplant seeds, which are popular horticultural choices in the current project phase.

How biopesticides work. (Credit: Bio-Innovate Program)