Since 2019, Kenya and other parts of East Africa have been facing the worst locust outbreak in 70 years. Thankfully, Kenya is long-established as the producer of a near-miracle plant that, when processed correctly into an insecticide, is capable of a 96-100% success rate in killing desert locusts. If that wasn’t enough, the plant leaves zero residue behind it 24 hours after application, and whilst it’s deadly to insects, it isn’t harmful to people or other animals. Yet, whilst farmers are privately using this solution where they can, it is yet to be implemented or even acknowledged by the government. We spoke with Ian Shaw, Managing Director of this natural pesticide’s producer, Kapi Limited, to get to the bottom of why.
In 2018, Middle Eastern cyclones caused a downpour of rain in the deserts of Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula – both breeding grounds for locusts. This water helped the wildlife in these deserts to flourish, and in late 2019, locust swarms hit East Africa in staggering numbers; they had made their way the short distance across the sea from Yemen where they hit Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. For most farmers in the area, these swarms were in numbers that had never happened before in their lifetimes.
Meanwhile, Kapi Limited has been in operation in Kenya since 1964. In 2008, it was purchased by Ian Shaw, after he was wowed by the incredible potential of its products. Kapi Limited produces insecticides: it began with mosquito coils and soon expanded outward into other mosquito products, but has since grown further to cover safe pesticides for crops and even anti flea and tick shampoo for dogs. Almost all of its products use the same plant as their foundation: pyrethrum. We asked Ian what made this plant so effective and, for him, so important to implement:
“There’s a whole bunch of benefits. Number one: it’s natural. A pyrethrum flower is a type of chrysanthemum that’s grown in the highlands on Kenya. It’s fantastic for farmers here: it’s a great cash crop. They grow the flowers, dry them, and they are then milled and processed. We purchase something called Pale Refined Extract, which is a 50% pyrethrum concentrate.
“Number two: it leaves zero residue. After 24 hours, pyrethrum extract disappears – it’s destroyed by sunlight. Literally, you can spray pyrethrum on an apple at 8 in the morning and you can eat the apple by 4 in the afternoon. It’s unreal. If you compare that with the chemicals that are widely used, they leave a residue for up to six months.” This difference has a massive impact on the environment, as well as on the safety of crops when it comes to consumption, as does point three: “Number three: it’s got very low mammalian toxicity.” This means that pyrethrum has very little impact on human health, making it a safe option for protecting homes against mosquitos, as well as – hypothetically – spraying farming towns and villages to protect against the current locust crisis.
Finally, number four: not only is it safe for use, but, it’s effective. Natural products carry the stigma or association of being weaker or less effective, but amazingly, this isn’t so with Kapi’s pyrethrum products. Ian explained why: “It’s got an incredibly wide spectrum of kill activity. It kills virtually all insects, which is brilliant for a farmer. You can spray one natural product onto your crop instead of four or five different chemicals. There are also no recorded incidents on insect resistance to pyrethrum. The flower basically has six different kill actions: it’s a bit like being in the ring with a boxer and you don’t know where the next punch is going to come from. You can’t develop a resistance. Meanwhile, pyrethroids, which are chemical attempts to copy pyrethrum, only mimic one of the kill actions, which means insects develop a very quick resistance to that chemical.”
This is why Kapi’s insecticide, and specifically its main agricultural product Flower DS 4EC, has a 96-100% kill efficiency rate on Desert Locusts, as tested by the University of Nairobi, as well as a very high kill efficiency against most other agricultural pests. “It’s absolutely, totally amazing.”
Ian is a passionate advocate of this plant, and you can see why. It was this passion that led him to purchase Kapi in the first place, when success for its own sake ceased to satisfy and he grew restless to make a difference in the world:
“It was a mid-life crisis. We used to own restaurants in the middle of London. We had connections to Kenya; I was born in Kenya and my wife was born in Tanzania. In 1999, for our honeymoon, we spent a wacky year living out of a Land Rover, traveling from South Africa to Kenya.” The one-year honeymoon turned into a second year in Kenya, and it was only when Ian’s wife became pregnant that they headed back to the UK, but Kenya was still on his mind. “I said to her, ‘Look, I would really love to go back and do something proper in Kenya.’” In 200,5the couple decided to push themselves towards this dream by buying a house there and travelling out to it for a school term – now with sons in tow. “It was during that year that I discovered Kapi. It was run badly, but it had great products, and I discovered pyrethrum and thought, ‘My god, this is an unbelievable molecule that no one knows about.’ So, I bought the company, we never went back to England, and the boys never went back to their little village school.”
In terms of sales, Kapi’s miracle insecticide is widely consumed. Almost every Kenyan farm opts to use it, because it leaves their crops clean and viable for export. As for Kapi’s own exports, Ian predicts that demand will soon outstrip supply, which means expansion is on the cards. “We’ve got huge demand globally: the developed countries have really woken up to pyrethrum. In our pesticide circles, it’s called the ‘21st Century pesticide.’”
Kapi are currently in talks with 15 countries who are eager to join the ranks of those who use pyrethrum. This process takes a couple of years, as the insecticide must be registered as a poison and go through the due checks in each country, but this means that every year, a new market completes this process and is added to Kapi’s exports list. Ian is excited that soon, Kapi will need to look to new pyrethrum farms, which he says is a more profitable crop for local farmers than many others: “At the moment, they’re growing staples like potatoes, and when their crop is ready, so is everyone else’s, so the price collapses. They’re really keen to get back to farming pyrethrum.”
However, despite business being fantastic, Ian is on a mission with Kapi, the same passion that drove him to buy the company now driving him on this frontier. For, as we’ve mentioned, whilst everyone else seems to have embraced pyrethrum, the Kenyan government has not – which, in a time of disastrous locust swarms, is a big problem.
At present, whilst many farmers choose to use Kapi’s pyrethrum products on their crops – particularly if they are for export – other insecticides in circulation are hazardous in a number of ways. Unfortunately, these are the ones favoured by the government in response to the locust emergency. “The chemicals that are being sprayed are all banned in Europe. If you look at one, chlorpyriphos, it was banned all throughout America in August of this year because they have found clear evidence that it causes brain disfunction in children. You’re talking about really heavy-duty chemicals, and they’re spraying them from airplanes over crops, villages, even townships in some cases. It’s really shocking.”
It is not only the Kenyan government who has been slow to acknowledge pyrethrum, or in fact to acknowledge the hazards of the chemicals currently used: representatives of the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) stationed in the country have also been slow to respond, to Ian’s frustration – especially as the FAO is a United Nations body.
“When the locusts were really bad, farmers with locusts on their plot were not calling the FAO to report because they didn’t want the chemicals sprayed on their crops. They chose to lose 25-30% of their export crop to locusts rather than losing 100% of it to a chemical with bad residue. All of the chemicals used by the FAO have chemicals that, if found going into Europe or the US, would have the container declined and sent back or destroyed.”
“We’re not political, and we’re not trying to say ‘Look, change the world over night’, but we’re trying to say ‘Look, for the 5%-10% of your spraying where you are over homesteads or villages, or agricultural crops or cattle, use a natural product that you know is safe.”
There are two potential drawbacks to pyrethrum: firstly, it costs 1.5x more than most chemical insecticides, and its high effectiveness rate means that as well as taking out the ‘problem’ insects, it also kills bees. However, Ian put both of these concerns into perspective:
“It’s about one and a half times the price of the chemicals, but if you’re looking at a helicopter for $2500 an hour [hired to locate the locust swarms) and $3,500 a day for a plane (to spray the insecticide], then actually, the insecticide is not the key cost.” When the trade-out is a country either losing a portion of its crops or jeopardizing the validity and sale of its exports, this cost would also be something that one might expect the government to see the value in absorbing. The main sticking point for the FAO, Ian explained, is the bees, but even this isn’t what it seems when examined beyond an easy soundbite:
“The simple answer is, pyrethrum does kill bees. However, and it’s a massive ‘however’, pyrethrum only kills bees for 24 hours. Virtually every single chemical used in agriculture also kills bees. If you compare it to malathion, say – that’s one of the safest for bees – then you need more malathion than pyrethrum to kill a bee, so technically, pyrethrum has a higher kill rate. However, malathion leaves residue for a minimum of 14 days – it keeps killing bees for 13 days longer than pyrethrum. If you then look at something like deltamethrin, which is one of the world’s biggest pyrethroids used in agriculture, it 1100x more potent to bees than pyrethrum, because it carries on killing bees for three months.”
Skeptics may argue that statistics and figures can be spun all manner of ways, but what can’t be spun so easily are clear results: Ian told us about a commercial farm, Vitaplant, that the company has recently produced a video about, where its bee population went from dwindling to prosperous after the switch to using Kapi products was made. “Since they’ve begun to use our products, the recovery of their bee population has been huge. The owner said that when he took over the farm there were virtually no bees, and all of his neighboring farmers were complaining about his farm’s effect on the bee population. He moved to our products, the bees returned, and it’s now their population is so healthy that the farm has its own bee hives!”
Like all products of this nature, Kapi’s insecticides need to be used responsibly, but if this is done, the risk to bees is even more contained: “We advise all farmers to spray Flower DS 4 EC late in the afternoon/early evening so that the sunlight doesn’t degrade the pyrethrum too quickly, giving it a kill effect through the night and the following morning. It is also because at night, the bees are not out pollinating.” By the time the bees emerge and come into contact with the product, it is far weaker, and by the end of the day, it is completely gone.
Given this, it’s no wonder that Ian is frustrated. However, he’s hoping that the time is coming when the FAO will reconsider the current anti-locust strategies:
“The FAO say they take advice from their locust pesticide referee group. Now, this group last met in 2014. They were scheduled to meet in 2020, but they then postponed because of Covid. They then set up their meeting for July for 2021, but postponed again because it conflicted with holidays.” Why this locust pesticide group hasn’t made a more urgent effort to meet, either socially distanced or online, in response to the biggest locust problem in 70 years is unclear. However, the group are apparently now (finally) reviewing data, and Ian hopes that in the light of current data they will be able to update their advice to the FAO. In the meantime, whilst this group has been failing to meet and harmful chemicals have continued to be sprayed on towns and villages, others have been at work:
“In the time that we’ve been dealing with the FAO, we’ve offered them unlimited samples of our product so they can conduct their own trials to prove that it works. We have not had a single communication back from them. MP Gladys Shollei actually walked in the FAO offices and gave them a letter advising that they could not spray harmful chemicals aerially and inviting them to look at pyrethrum. That was three weeks ago [from the time of interview], from a member of the Kenyan government, and the FAO have not yet responded to it.”
As mentioned earlier, Kapi’s actual sales are booming, but Ian’s concern over this issue is because of people, not profit. “The people in Kenya make your heart burn. To run a business where you can make such a profound effect on people’s lives is a reason for getting out of bed each day. It’s just so heartwarming. And pyrethrum is a Kenyan solution to a Kenyan problem.” Not only is the crop Kenyan, but so is Kapi: apart from Ian, every member of staff is black Kenyan, and fantastically, 80% of the workforce is female, including management. Both things are important to Ian, who wants this company to be of Kenya and for Kenya, just like pyrethrum itself. Here’s hoping that the government takes notice of this product soon, so farmers are no longing choosing between losing their crops to locusts or the locust solution, and children are no longer at risk from what the bodies put in place to protect them have deemed safe to drop from the skies.