The Toothpick Project

LOCATION: Kenya

SUMMARY: The Toothpick Project addresses a critical problem: 40 million African smallholder farmers lose from 20-80% of their maize, sorghum, millet, and rice crops to Striga, a parasitic weed. Striga’s origin in Africa is unclear, but its devastation on smallholder farms has increased for the last seven decades. In Kenya, The Toothpick Project has designed and deployed an ecologically-sound solution: a biocontrol technology using a locally-sourced fungus substance, technically an “inoculum,” embedded onto a toothpick that kills Striga and improves crop yield by averages of more than 50%. With the large majority of Kenya maize farmers being women, they have designed a delivery system that uses women’s knowledge of food preparation to prepare the inoculum substrate - making this a gender-based food security solution.

PROBLEM SPACE: African smallholder farmers worst weed, Striga, depletes 20-80% of their maize, sorghum, millet, and rice yields. Imagine you are a woman smallholder farmer with only your farm for subsistence. You need a weed solution that is extremely low cost and with a proven return on your investment. You need something safe because you don't want to contaminate your soil or water. You need something accessible and easy to use. Your motivation is first and foremost the need to feed your family. Once this is accomplished, you hope to have enough surplus to sell. With this income, your top priority is to send your children to school. However, sometimes you need these funds for malaria or other illness. And, on top of this, you hope to improve your farm by planting more crops for increased nutrition and income. Though biological control with safely enhanced fungi can't promise to address these concerns directly, we believe it has a big future in Africa because it fiercely attacks one of the roots of these farmers' problems. This trimtab technology is ripe for advancement but, in developed countries, the agriculture industry is already obliged to chemical pesticides. Biocontrol fits Africa perhaps better than anywhere else.

SOLUTION: "The Toothpick Project is currently engaged in scaling up manufacturing and distribution in our initial country, Kenya. With the fall 2017 planting, we'll be developing distribution protocol and methods with four Kenyan NGOs, including advisory models and a kiosk shop. It is critical to expand into the other 17 countries ravished by Striga. To do this, we propose to train biological control scientists (up to ten countries in the first stage). The protocol for this technology is: Isolate (local adapted fungal strains), Field Test (in farmers fields), Enhance (by selecting amino acid excretion), Produce (primary inoculum in a certified laboratory), Register (with governmental agencies), Promote (using appropriate media), and Disseminate the biological control agent with instructions as to how it is best used (via biocontrol kiosks, agriculture outreach organizations, and governmental agricultural development programs already underway).

Successful production of locally-adapted biocontrol agents can sustain the productivity of smallholder farmers and subsequently provide an income to support the laboratory producing these biocontrol agents. Within this system, there are several potential micro-industries (village-based live inoculum production).

The benefit of the newly formed network of trained scientists extends beyond Striga and Africa. These scientists will lead the way for integration of biocontrol globally."

UPDATE: Since entering the BFI Challenge in 2017, the Toothpick Project officially launched a social enterprise company in Kenya and has started scaling up their manufacturing capacity as well as the distribution process. This process involves continued labwork, trials and modifications with the end goal being a highly effective product that is affordable and accessible for all farmers. In January 2018 at Montana State University, scientists from twelve African Striga-striken countries were trained in the use of virulence-enhancement technology with their own locally-isolated fungal strains. Now, multi-national efforts are taking place to expand the research, trials, and commercialization in countries across sub-Saharan Africa. The Toothpick Project is currently seeking partnerships with farm input distribution NGOs, particularly in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, and Mali. Also in 2017, the Toothpick Project was a MassChallenge 2017 Finalist, was part of the Montana State University Blackstone Launchpad 406Labs Accelerator, and participated in the SOCAP17 Entrepreneur Scholarship program.

CONTACT: [email protected]

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