I’ve noticed on billboards, airplanes, and brochures, the tagline for Kenya seems to be “Magical Kenya.” My first reaction was trying to imagine a Kenya-sized Disney World with lions and savannas and elephant rides.
But then I saw my first sunset on Lake Victoria. No other word could describe the fog rising off of the light blue water that was softly rippling and folding to the black-sand coast, so carefully and gently highlighting the pink glow of the setting sun – the sun that was sitting between two green, luscious peaks that stretched passed the enchanting village of Mbita, then the word “magical.” I was physically speechless. But I knew what I was thinking loud and clear. “Magical Kenya.”
Alright, so I get it. The sights here cannot be captured in pictures because of the overwhelming, untouched beauty. The slogan got it right, it’s magical. Kenya: one, Cheyenne: zero.
But then yesterday while working in the field plots at ICIPE, the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, I once again witnessed true acts of magic.
I learned that throughout most of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and even parts of Ethiopia subsistence farmers struggle with two major “yield killers,” as I call them. One is a weed called Striga, what locals call “witchweed”—and for good reasons! Striga is a parasitic weed that, instead of growing roots for itself, connects to the roots of maize (corn) plants, stealing all of the nutrients from its host, the maize. The picture below shows what the maize crop looks like where this toxic weed is present.
The other, equally wicked, “yield killer” is a pest called the stemborer. This insect feeds on the maize leaves as larvae, then they move to the stem and other critical points causing deadheart, or stunted maize. Then the large larvae build extensive tunnels inside of the stem, disrupting what fellow plant nerds know to be the crucial phloem and the xylem, the means of transporting nutrients. The rest of this pest life cycle takes place on the corn leaves and inside the stem, ensuring sustainable damage.
In fields where both “yield killers” are present, it is common for farmers to lose 100% of their crop. For subsistence farmers in Kenya, this doesn’t make for a “bad season.” This doesn’t mean empty grain bins. This is not problem to be solved with marketing and savings. This makes for a hungry season. Without a secure food source or supportive income this makes for a season of uncertainty.
This is where the project that my work in Kenya will be focused on comes in: the push-pull project. In 1998 ICIPE found a weed that naturally repels the stemborer. Something about the Desmodium plant, an odor or a chemical, PUSHES the stemborers away. They also found a grass called “Napier” that PULLS the stemborers in. After lots of experimenting and surveying farmers, the ICIPE team led by my supervisor, Professor Khan, created the push-pull field. In these fields Desmodium is planted between the rows of maize, pushing the stemborers away, while Napier grass is planted around the border of the field, pulling the stemborers towards it.
But wait, it gets better. The Napier grass produces a sticky substance that suffocates the stemborers, terminating the pest. Additionally, the Desmodium roots are toxic to the “witchweed,” or the Striga. Not only does the Desmodium block out the Striga from coming up, it also acts as a cover crop, conserving the topsoils and the nitrogen in these drier regions.
You remember those farmers losing 100% of their crop? Their yields, or amounts harvested, were multiplied by up to three after implementing the push-pull method! What else can I say besides, magic. Below is a picture of a field using the push-pull technology.
This internship has truly shown me the magic behind science. The impact that those who work with agricultural sciences is truly endless. This science just might be magic – but this country, these people, and this organization is worth much more than magic.