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Africa's cotton production plays a key role in the fight against poverty. The "Cotton Made in Africa" initiative promotes sustainable cultivation - one element of which is the use of organic pesticides. Entomologist Ben Sekamatte and cotton company manager Boaz Ogola talked with Jan Rübel about better soil and higher yields.
How did the initiative of training in biological pesticides come about?
Dr. Ben Sekamatte: I have been working in this context for the last 26 years – as an entomologist, I screened pesticides for cotton over a long period. Chemical pesticides for the African cotton originally came from European companies. They were tested before their release and efficacious for farmers to use. Post 1980s, the trend changed with the entry of cheap generics from India and China. This caused a lot of problems because these generics did not work well and forced farmers to spray more frequently. They killed a lot of beneficial insects.
Did the local governments react to these circumstances?
Sekamatte: They even intensified the problem because they wanted cheap materials and ended up using the same products for the same 25 years. This is technically wrong. Automatically, I had the idea of alternative products and fortunately the sustainability movement led by AbTF’s Cotton made in Africa came in very timely.
What did the farmers say?
Sekamatte: We reacted on their complaints. They said: We spend money for products which don’t help. Hence, we showed them alternative pesticides that have been tested for a long time: the traditional ones, totally biological. And we convinced international organizations to support us. So we started with Solanum and Neem trees – the leaves, after being steeped for 24 hours in water, form a powerful organic pesticide. We taught this method and planted trees – in three years, we planted 27.000 of them in Tanzania.
Boaz Ogola: We never had problems with the farmers. They want results, and they received positive ones with our organic pesticides. The main challenge was to produce enough of these pesticides, to make them available for all of the cotton farmers.
These methods are all old traditions – no innovation from the lab?
Sekamatte: No, nothing was new. New was only the question of sufficient quantity. We responded quickly and went to craftsmen. They invented for us small machines that process the leaves and other organic products; otherwise, it would be too hard for the farmers doing it with their own hands. And now, we have two big companies in Tanzania who produce these pesticides centrally.
When the old traditions had been already there – why did it take so long to adopt them on large scale?
Sekamatte: The chemical pesticides were simply available. Farmers are contracted by companies and they are provided with seeds and pesticides automatically. And the knowledge was not widespread that certain chemical pesticides are poisonous to the environment, to benevolent insects we need. But farmers love their soil, they learn fast.
Ogola: And farmers appreciate that biological pesticides don’t harm their health. In Tanzania, we began three years ago with 1877 farmers who we trained and accompanied using biological pesticides, and this year we have 9000 farmers who use them.
Is there any resistance or counter-lobbying from chemical producers?
Ogola: In the beginning, there was a lot of criticism. They alleged that our biological products would not work. This is understandable, because chemical companies risk losing clients. But the results gave the answer …
Sekamatte: To give an example: We introduced another effectful instrument, the molasse trap. Molasse is a byproduct when sugar is being made, all locally, and it attracts moths. So, they do not deposit eggs anymore and this reduces the amount of larvae attacking cotton plants. I went to a representative of one of the largest pesticide companies in the world in Africa and asked if his company still has programs to produce pheromone traps. And he said: No, they would be unaffordable for the smallholder farmers.
Biological pesticides are soft, they don’t persist in the soil or in the plants.
And what do politicians say?
Sekamatte: In one or the other country we touched some interests of politicians who were engaged in the import of chemical pesticides, and they were not happy. But the yields were so good with the organic pesticides that everybody was convinced. Now, we get overwhelming support in Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia, where we work.
How long does it take for a smallholder farmer to switch from chemical to biological pesticides and harvest?
Ogola: We don’t say to the farmers that they shall abstain completely from chemical pesticides. But they should reflect well and use these products after having scouted their crops and only when surpassing the threshold. There are too many unnecessary uses of them.
How does the soil react to this?
Sekamatte: Until now, we haven’t done a study about the behavior of soil organisms, but we can already tell that is much healthier for the soil. Bio-ground is much less damaged! Biological pesticides are soft, they don’t persist in the soil or in the plants.
How is it that production has actually increased?
Ogola: Healthy ground brings good and many fruits. This is also coming with the extra attention the farmers take – they look more thoroughly after the crops, know more, are more aware …
Why not do without chemical pesticides altogether?
Sekamatte: A lot of farmers work completely without any synthetic chemicals; they form 10% of the cotton farmers. And the ones who go on with a mix, tend to use less and less chemicals. They see that there is no need for it.
Ogola: I predict that in ten years, 75% of all the cotton farmers will use only organic pesticides.
Is there a risk that pests will develop resistance to biological pesticides?
Sekamatte: Yes, it is possible. But until now, it is too soon. No organism still got used to a biological pesticide. The tropical Africa has a huge diversity of plants with insecticidal properties: This will provide alternative pesticide groups, which is very good in preventing resistances.
Is this a model for other agricultural sectors - and for all of Africa?
Ogola: Until now, we acted under the umbrella of the ``Cotton Made in Africa`` program. It is now spreading in Southern Africa. And cotton farmers produce often maize and soybeans, too. The experiences of biological pesticides apply also to these crops.