Director’s update


1 March 2010

Ian Maudlin writes

I was recently reminded why the RIU programme is so important. Keith Sones, who leads our excellent communication team, recently returned from a visit to western Kenya to check in with one of the projects funded under the RIU Best Bets initiative. On his return he wrote to his communications team as a reminder of why their work was important:

“Together with Nik [Wood, the RIUtv correspondent], I flew to Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria, to see what one of our Best Bets is doing and to meet some of the farmers they are working with. These are poor, small-scale farmers struggling to feed their families. They have tiny plots on which they grow traditional varieties of crops – maize, sorghum, cowpeas – saving their own seed and using no fertilizer or any other purchased inputs. Their fields were full of the deceptively beautiful Striga plant – also known as witchweed. This is a parasitic weed that has few roots of its own and instead taps into germinating cereal seeds, sucking the goodness out of them as they grow and leaving the resulting plants stunted and with little or no yield. Tellingly, we visited a local homestead – mud huts, bare-footed children – and saw the traditional round granary, intricately constructed with sides made from woven sticks and a thatched roof, falling in to disrepair; there simply wasn’t enough harvest to make it worthwhile keeping it is good order. One of our Best Bets provides the promise of a simple affordable package of technology that could transform these farmers fields: soaking the seed corn overnight to hasten germination; adding a tiny amount of fertilizer to the soaking water to give the germinating seed a boost and to counter local soil deficiencies; and then next day, prior to sowing, treating the seed with a natural fungus that attacks the Striga weed. Once Striga is under control these farmers might consider trying improved, higher-yielding varieties of seed and other better practices, such as correct spacing and use of small amounts of properly targeted fertilizer: their granaries might again be repaired and full!”

Follow this link to the Best Bets Striga page to see this film.

These simple interventions could transform the food security and lives of these farmers, who live in one of the poorest parts of Kenya.

The research that is being put to productive use in the above example was completed in the 1990s, but to date has not been commercially exploited; excellent scientific papers but the technology remains on the shelf. The Real IPM company is based in Thika, Kenya. Its core business is supplying biological control agents to the highly successful, large-scale horticultural industry in Kenya and beyond. The grant awarded through the RIU Best Bets initiative has allowed Real IPM to diversity into a completely new market segment. This has meant applying their existing expertise, resources and facilities but complementing these with new partnerships with NGOs, local community leaders, agrovet kiosks and local FM radio stations to enable them to reach out to and engage with small-scale traditional farmers in western Kenya.

This Best Bets clearly shows one of the vital ingredients needed to put research into use – a highly committed champion. Henry Wainwright, the MD of the Real IPM Company, was until 10 years ago enjoying the life of an academic in the UK. Today he is at the helm of a successful, growing and highly innovative company which employs 80 Kenyans. He even sold his house in the UK to finance the establishment of his company – that’s real commitment and it made a big impression on the panellists at the Best Bets event, held in Nairobi last November.

It is early days yet, but I will be following the progress made by Real IPM and their partners, and all the other Best Bets projects, with great interest. You too can follow their story through the short RIUtv films posted on the RIU website- see, for example, the latest update on striga/Real IPM story.

And building on the success of the first round of Best Bets, which focused on East, Central and Southern Africa, we are now forging ahead with round two, focused on West Africa. By the closing date on January 29th, 85 proposals had been submitted. We are currently in the process of drawing up a shortlist and an announcement on this will be made soon. The first round of Best Bets yielded five very interesting projects which show great promise and I am really looking forward to seeing how Best Bets develops.

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