A researcher samples Striga plants from an invested maize farm at Rongo Migori County [Sammy Omingo, Standard]

More than 13,000 farmers in western Kenya have embraced a sensitisation programme promoting the use of eco-friendly herbicides to combat the pervasive Striga weed jeopardising soil fertility.

Speaking in Makunga, Lurambi constituency while inspecting farms that adopted "Kichawi Kill," an eco-friendly bioinoculant designed to eliminate Striga, Claire Sands Baker, the co-founder of Toothpick, emphasised the importance of an eco-friendly approach in the fight against this destructive weed.

“Striga hermonthica is a highly destructive parasitic weed that affects food security and safety. Chemical methods of control are deleterious to soil health and cause environmental pollution. The use of bioinoculants as a control mechanism is an eco-friendly approach to combating the weed,” said Baker.

"Once maize begins germinating in Striga-prevalent soil, it stimulates Striga seeds to germinate. Striga then attaches to the roots of the host plant, sapping nutrients from the plant, leading to stunting. The potential yield loss can reach up to 100 per cent."

Baker expressed optimism about the bioherbicide, approved for commercialisation in Kenya in 2021, and announced plans for its rollout in 20 African countries following successful pilot projects. The commercialisation of "Kichawi Kill" resulted from a decade-long collaborative research effort between the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) and Montana State University (MSU-USA).

Lucas Orende, a resource-poor farmer from Lurambi Kakamega, shared the challenges Striga posed to his farm and the economic burden of using chemical herbicides. Orende said the pilot project in his maize farm was effective. 

“The weeds are not on the section they picked and applied Kichawi kill,” he said.

Dorcas Kemboi, the General Manager of Toothpick, detailed that "Kichawi Kill" is manufactured by inoculating cooked rice with the fungus Fusarium oxysporum fsp strigae. Applied at each maize planting hill, the bioinoculant kills Striga seeds during germination, reducing subsequent infestation.

Striga's prevalence on 40 million farms globally, causing an annual crop loss of $9 billion, underscores the urgency of sustainable control measures. The weed attacks the roots of various crops, including maize, sorghum, millets, dryland rice, and sugarcane, negatively impacting small-scale farmers.

The success of eco-friendly initiatives like "Kichawi Kill" not only addresses immediate agricultural challenges but also signifies a shift towards sustainable and environmentally conscious farming practices.

During the pilot project, crop yields in fields treated by Kichawi Kill increased by more than 50 per cent on average at the end of the season 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.

Originally developed at Montana State University by Prof. David Sands, the technology uses specifically selected fungal strains to fight Striga.

According to Ms. Baker, in the next few years, they aim to expand the capacity of the Toothpick Company 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,” she said.