Egerton scholar wins Sh128 million grant

As Kenya works towards withdrawing synthetic insecticides from its market, a team of researchers at Egerton University is developing organic products as alternatives.

The project by Associate Professor of Organic Chemistry Josiah Omollo comes after he won a Sh128 million Icipe Bioinnovate Africa grant to develop and commercialise environmentally friendly insecticides.

Prof Omollo underscores the need for bio-friendly products to fight insect pests due to the toxic residual effect of synthetic chemicals.

"We want to be at a place where synthetic pesticides shall only apply when the bio-products have failed. We are confident of developing effective bio-friendly pesticides," said Omollo.

The National Assembly was petitioned in 2019 by various organisations, seeking a review of the safety of synthetic pesticides in the Kenyan market after farmers raised health concerns.

The petitioners were the Biodiversity and Biosafety Association of Kenya (BIBA-K), Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN), Resources Oriented Development Initiatives (RODI) and Route to Food Initiative (RTFI).

The petition came when the European Union and other international markets for Kenyan agro-products banned the importation of products with certain levels of toxins from farm chemicals.

"Pesticides are not only a threat to safe food for us but also to the environment we live in. Toxins in synthetic chemicals remain in the environment for years after use," said Omollo.

In the multi-million shilling project, Omollo will collaborate with scholars from the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe), Tanzania, Rwanda and the US.

"We shall examine ways of promoting the use of bio-products to protect consumers from excess chemical residues from the harmful pesticides blamed for some diseases," he said.

A 2019 report by American Heart Association established that persons exposed to high levels of pesticides in their occupation were at a 45 per cent higher risk of suffering heart disease or stroke.

A similar research by Kenyan scholars in 2021 among horticultural farmers in Meru County indicated that 26 per cent of farmers experienced health effects after using synthetic pesticides.

Apart from the production of safer food and better health, Omollo has cited biodegradable pesticides as a great stride towards improving profit margins for farmers and food sufficiency.

"Synthetic chemicals are highly-priced. This has continued to demotivate many farmers leading to reduced food production. This contributes to the high cost of food due to low supply," said Omollo.

Last year, Omollo was also a beneficiary of Alliance for African Partnership Transforming Institutions Strategic Funding.

Under the programme, the don received Sh256,000 to aid in the operationalisation of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Regional Research Centre at Egerton.

"The research centre has come at the right time. Biotechnology development is key to enhancing food security and coming up with more efficient and cleaner industrial manufacturing processes," he said.

He described biotechnology as a major solution to the food situation in the country by developing ways of dealing with climate change and productive utilisation of Kenya's vast and underutilized lands.

"With biotechnology, we can incorporate the systems with mobile technology to help farmers respond to challenges appropriately and conveniently, such as diagnosing various diseases," he said.

Egerton University Director of Research Nancy Mungai lauded the don, noting that the grants will create a positive impact in the agricultural sector and its benefit felt beyond Kenya's borders.

"Research has proven to be a key cog in bringing positive change to how we live today. Products from this project will bring great change to agriculture, health, and the economy," said Prof Mungai.

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