[Interview] Claire Sands Baker, Director, Toothpick Company, Kenya
Claire Sands Baker co-founded, and is currently the Director of the Toothpick Company, an enterprise working hard to combat the threat that parasitic plants present in Kenya's Agriculture.
The Toothpick Company was recently recognized by the United Nations as one of the 50 Best Small Businesses in the world.
What exactly does the Toothpick Company do?
We are using biology to fight biology in one of the biggest fights against weeds in the world. In our human-centered and eco-centered design, we focus on reducing chemical pesticide use and improving safety, affordability, effectiveness, and food security for farmers. After decades of research and development with team members from three continents, our pilot social enterprise, Toothpick Company Limited, based in Kakamega, Kenya, launched commercial distribution in March, 2021.
Our innovation flips the field of plant pathology, sourcing a local plant disease to effectively kill Striga (witchweed). Striga, considered the worst pest threat to food security in Africa, is a weed on 40 million farms in sub-Saharan Africa, depleting crop yield by 20-100%.
Our technology uses selected strains of endemic Kenyan fungus. Our memorable name is derived from the toothpicks we use to deliver our primary inoculum to the village level. The resulting product is trademarked as Kichawi Kill in Kenya.
What support, if any, have you received from local governments and Agri-focused organizations?
Based on a fortuitous connection between a nasty weed in Kenya and an untapped innovation in Montana, USA, (more of the story is here) research and development began in 2007 through a collaboration between Montana State University, Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), and Liberty Initiators Network (a Kenyan community-based farmer organization). Proof-of-concept trials, funded by a Gates Foundation Grand Challenges Exploration grant, took place in 2014-2015, showing 42-56% increase in crop yield in paired plot trials on 500 farms. With evidence of crop yield restoration, a social enterprise was formed in 2018 with additional support from the German NGO Welthungerhilfe and the German Environmental Foundation (DBU).
Partnerships have been key to Toothpick Company Limited successes. Our primary inoculum (the coated ‘toothpicks’) are manufactured in a dedicated lab at KALRO. Through relationships with dozens of farmer groups, as well as NGOs, the enterprise has hosted demonstration plots on 2000 farms.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic directly or indirectly impacted your business operations?
COVID has challenged our business dramatically. Our commercial product dossier had been submitted to the regulatory body in November 2019. Due to COVID delays, it wasn’t reviewed and approved until February 2021. This means our ability to sell our product was delayed by over a year, eating into funds we raised to reach scale. With a dedicated field team, we shifted our farm visits to fit within travel and gathering regulations (these restrictions continue, we reinforce safety protocol by distributing masks to farmers attending our events).
With our global team members, all international travel has been cancelled since April 2020.
The terrific news is that all conferences have been held virtually. Therefore, we have been able to participate far more than ever before because we haven’t been challenged with travel expenses. We have presented at and attended conferences all over the world! We also love daily Whatsapp check ins.
What other challenges have you faced in your journey and how have you worked to overcome these?
We are one of the first biological herbicides to be commercialized in the world. Therefore, the regulatory path has been unclear. The process took longer than expected but we persevered! In Africa, biocontrol product regulations vary in each country. We are currently the case subject for a project looking at harmonization of biocontrol policy within trade regions in Africa. Though this is just a preliminary research grant, we hope it will help pave the way for our technology as well as other new biocontrol innovations.
In anticipation of expansion beyond Kenya, in 2018, we trained a team of scientists from a dozen African countries. Because our technology is new, funders have been hesitant to support the work in these other countries without evidence of commerciallization. We have had a huge upswing in interest since our product was approved for commercial use in March.
Describe what it means for your agri-food enterprise to be selected by the UN as one of the 50 Best Small Businesses in the world?
We have felt like a valuable and critical business from the day we launched. We’ve poured our energy and resources into our business. On the ground, we work from farmer to farmer – but we have global visions. Getting this award validates everything we have done. It says to the world what we have known – that our mission is on track, that our innovation is special, and that our persistence will pay off. Being highlighted by the UN gives us a platform to talk about the potential for our solution, and our goals to shift agriculture toward effective and safe regenerative and agroecological solutions for farmers.
What is your vision for 2022 and beyond in delivering a more nourishing, sustainable, equitable and resilient food system?
With our new commercial approval, we are now testing and modifying our distribution strategy to make sure that it is streamlined for our Village Inoculum Producers (VIPs) and farmers. We are currently reaching four counties in western Kenya and will expand that to eight counties in the next two years. We are also testing a new concept: coating seeds with our fungal spore powder. Our first trials are in the ground right now and we anticipate adding this distribution channel by 2024.
In the coming year, we look forward to building partnerships with organizations such as Farm to Market Alliance, Plant Village, etc.
In 2018, we built a team of scientists from 13 sub-Saharan countries (Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, and Mali). These are our next areas for expansion, which will include expansion to other Striga varieties, other host crops, and other weeds.
What further support does your business and others like you need to create good and sustainable food for all?
A global concern: 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.
1. To reach scale in Kenya, we need financial resources and partnerships with organizations that provide inputs and resources to farmers.
2. Striga is rampant across sub-Saharan Africa. Through our partner labs in 13 countries, each will need financial support for regulatory trials and commercial processes. We are also seeking NGO and governmental partners to expedite extension.
3. Every country in Africa has their own biocontrol approval protocol. We need help harmonizing this process.
4. We need visionaries who can help us shift an entire $34 billion/year industry with this new innovation.
What key advice would you give to others that would like to follow your example to become passionate, values-driven, innovative food entrepreneurs?
Our technology was invented at Montana State University, but it took local partners to create a product that keeps smallholder farmers at the forefront. Sharing ideas around the world has never been easier than it is with communications platforms we now use daily today. But it is important to remember that a product needs to be designed for local/regional use. Balance both a local focus as well as a global vision through partnerships. We are able to do this through local on-the-ground partners (sometimes small farmer groups of a dozen farmers) as well as large international partners who share Sustainable Development Goals with us (Welthungerhilfe has provided their credibility to our innovation, UNDP Cultiv@te is helping us expand into Ethiopia with access to research organizations, the Ministry of Agriculture, etc.).
It is also important to remember to tap into experts and don’t be afraid to ask the top dogs!
Is there anything you’d like to add that you feel strongly about in providing Good Food For All?
I can’t emphasize enough how huge this is for us! We are doing everything we can to keep up with the traction! We’ve been grant-writing for this project for over a decade. It is rare to find a funder who is approving more than 5% of their applicants. We’ve been in the bottom 95% most of the time and we know all brilliant solutions (our competitors and colleagues) haave been sitting on the cutting room floor with us at some point. We are incredibly grateful for the handful of bold funders who had faith in us personally, as well as in our shared vision for our novel innovation. My message to the world is that we need to seek solutions at all levels (from huge research institutions to small farmer cooperatives) and we need to give more room for failure. To do this, we need to dive more deeply into that 95%. What would happen if half of all proposals were funded? Each funded organization could divert their fundraising efforts and focus on achieving their actual goals. This would then lighten the competition for future funding opportunities…and then the cycle of success could begin. Funding only 5% is a systemic failure. If we want Good Food For All, we need to be less competitive. When given the opportunity, good ideas will shine!
This interview is part of a series covering the winners of the United Nations Best Small Business providing Good Food for All global competition.