The Toothpick Project: Improving Food Security through Biocontrol Innovation Highly Ranked

Food security

Tackling Striga, Africa’s worst weed, our project improves food security: transferring innovative bioherbicide technology to rapidly build the capacity of science teams and commercial networks.

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Lead Organization


Bonn, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany


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To learn more about – or provide significant funding to – this project, please contact Lever for Change.

Project Summary

In sub-Saharan Africa the parasitic weed Striga causes $9 billion in annual harvest damage. Our bioherbicide technology, a virulence-enhanced Fusarium fungus, kills Striga effectively. On over 500 proof-of-concept field trials, Foxy increased crop yield by 42-56% (#1). We are now galvanizing the innovative technology through a last-mile distribution system from lab-to-field. Advancement of bioherbicide technology is dependent on increasing the number of experts in the field. Through a highly trained network of African biocontrol scientists, we will transfer the technology to 16 Striga-diseased countries. Using our Kenyan pilot model, we’ll scale up to reach at least 1,000,000 farmers by 2025.Using pieces of wood (earlier toothpicks) embedded with selected Foxy strains, farmers apply a fresh inoculum on-farm, which is safe, effective, and affordable. With a final objective of increasing crop yield, we will customize the village-level inoculum production system to fit to proven rural distribution models that utilize village producers.

Problem Statement

Striga (witchweed) is an increasingly destructive invasive parasitic weed on 40 million farms, affecting 300 million people (#18), across sub-Saharan Africa. Attacking the roots of crops like maize, sorghum, millet, cowpea and upland rice, it depletes crop yield by up to 100%, resulting in a lack of sustenance (cereals provide 46% of calories [#15]) and income for farmers. Up to 50 million hectares of African croplands show Striga infestation, causing $9 billion in crop loss annually (#13, #19). 70% of maize smallholder farmers are women (Kenya), making Striga a gender-sensitive food security issue. [#19] Striga is considered the #1 pest threat in African food security. Some Striga-management technologies exist but, they haven’t been widely adopted by farmers due to mismatches between technologies, socio-economic conditions, effectiveness, and availability. Weeding by hand or by chemical herbicides is too late to reverse damage. Imazapyr-coated hybrid maize seeds haven’t yet been proven safe and effective. Striga-tolerant crop cultivars, push-pull methodology, and improving soil fertility can improve crop yield but don’t secure yield effectively or address the soil’s Striga seed bank. Costs often exceed the farmers’ economic means. There is a second concern of a global scope. Chemical management systems are the leading solution for pest control. However, the industry is struggling: pests are increasingly resistant to the chemicals (there are super-weeds, like antibiotic-resistant super-bugs). Farmers and consumers are concerned about potential toxins on their food and in the environment. We envision a shift in pest management, mobilizing safer, more effective technology.

Solution Overview

Our solution strategy consists of two components: scaling-up of biocontrol technology and setting-up of a sustainable distribution system to bring our solution to the farmers.1. Currently there is only a small, vulnerable science team, therefore, to continue building scientific capacity, it is imperative to train a larger team of scientists and equip country laboratories. We have trained 14 scientists in Africa, representing 12 countries’ major research organizations, on how to select for virulence-enhanced bioherbicide fungus. They will conduct the trials necessary for product registration in their country.2. The most efficient path to reach farmers is to set up a sustainable distribution system. We will utilize existing extension structures of Welthungerhilfe and its local partners - including agronomy education, demonstration plots, storage and marketing, etc. In Kenya we founded a company (Toothpick Company Ltd.) for organizing the financially viable distribution system. Our program will adapt our Kenyan pilot to match specific conditions of each region, always keeping the farmer in mind. The distribution model focuses on agribusiness development, creating new jobs in communities with village-level producers. In five years, we anticipate labs operating in 17 countries and enough extension partners to reach 1,000,000 farmer families in Africa. By increasing their crop yield by 42-56%, our solution will have a deep and substantial impact on the farm families’ overall well-being. Once the science team successfully isolates fungal strains to fight Striga, they’ll be armed with biocontrol knowledge to tackle other pests in environmentally safe and efficient ways.

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Project Funders

  • Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: Grand Challenges Exploration 2013 - 2015
  • DBU (Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt) - German Environmental Foundation)

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