Crop pests are a nightmare for farmers across Africa and contribute to food insecurity. Current figures on the extent of damage caused by plant pests vary between 10-16% losses in global crop production.
Although chemical pesticides are available, concerns have been raised about their impact on both human and environmental health.
At a plant north of the capital Nairobi, a Kenyan company is producing innovative natural solutions for pest control. Kenya Biologics has developed bio insecticides that promise zero harm to the environment and food. One of its products is called Helitec, and is used to fight the African bollworm pest, common in many crops including maize, vegetables, flowers and cotton.
“The advantage of the product is that it is so specific against this one caterpillar it will not harm bees or other beneficial insects. You can immediately harvest and eat the food without any harm. You could even pour a bottle of the product over your head without any adverse effects,” says Chris Kolenberg, CEO of Kenya Biologics.
The company sells a wide range of non-toxic pesticides. Its main target customers are farmers engaged in the export business, and those in organic farming.
“The more professional the farm, the more they care,” says Kolenberg. “A lot of farmers who are not familiar with the concept of safe farming want to spray one product that will kill all the pests. But the problem is the wider the range the more insects you kill – including the good ones. Additionally, there will be toxins in the food.”
Kenya Biologics is building a new production plant 10 times larger than the existing one in readiness to export its Helitec product to other African markets. It has started registration in 14 countries where it will export to, including Morocco, Mali, Tanzania and Ethiopia and most of the francophone region.
“The countries that we have chosen all have the insect problem. They also have a similar environment to Kenya’s, such as regulation that forces farmers to grow safe produce, export companies that have to adhere to EU standards, or a growing number of people locally who want to buy safe produce,” says Kolenberg.
Producing pesticides in Kenya
He believes Kenya’s environment is ideal for producing biological pesticides because of its warm weather, a favourable factor for breeding most insects.
“Also, in Kenya you also have relatively cheap labour and people are relatively well educated but they earn less compared to the west. The production process is labour intensive so we can produce it here at less expense than competitors in Switzerland or Australia.”
However, accessing talent in some fields is challenging. Kolenberg says it is easy to fill positions for sales people, for instance, but harder for specific science positions.
“I think it is a challenge all over the world. We rear insects, for instance, so we need people who have experience in mass rearing of insects to lead our product development. At the moment our founder is doing that, but he is 67 and needs to retire.”
For Kolenberg, originally from the Netherlands, adapting to the business environment in Kenya, and the rest of Africa as they expand, is also a challenge. “People management for instance is different here compared to the Netherlands where people are very direct.”
“If someone does something wrong I will tell them immediately, and for me the matter is closed. But then sometimes people here think I am still angry. So how you handle people is a bit different.”
Still Africa presents an opportunity for the company, says Kolenberg, because “farmers are enthusiastic” about adopting new innovative products.
“Since last year we have noticed there is a growing interest among smallholder farmers who produce for the local market to grow a safe product. I think awareness is growing. There is also pressure from consumers for healthier food.”