Most efforts to support smallholder farmers focus on initiatives and innovations deployable in the daytime. Few innovators think up interventions that work mainly at night, when farmers are asleep. Luwieke Bosma, program manager for regenerative agriculture at MetaMeta, says this is a major oversight. She and her partners are now setting out to help smallholder farmers better protect crops after the sun goes down, because the close of day is when mice come out to play. “Rodents, for some reason, they go unseen, often moving at night,” Bosma explained to Grow Further in an interview.
“They go unseen, often moving at night.”
With offices in Ethiopia, Nepal, Kenya, Turkey, and the Netherlands, MetaMeta conducts research and development on improved agricultural methods and technologies for smallholder farmers. It emphasizes finding natural and simple solutions adapted to local conditions, fostering not only better food production but also community and business development. Bosma sees great potential in MetaMeta’s work on integrated pest management, specifically rodent control. She’s now seeking to partner with Grow Further to enhance rodent management on smallholder farms using a combination of new organic technology and community training, with the aim of improving yields and incomes.
Invasion of the night crawlers
Bosma says her work is currently centered on Ethiopia, where the rodent problem first came to MetaMeta’s attention by accident. During experiments to build stone retaining walls to improve irrigation at terraced fields, the company’s field workers and local partners began to notice worsening rat infestations. They soon realized that their solution to farmers’ water woes only created a new problem for them to contend with—the rats found great shelter from predators in the stonework conveniently located next to abundant sources of food.
The farmers were initially inclined to respond with chemical rodenticide. This is a mistake, Bosma explained, and not only because they can persist in the environment and enter wildlife food chains. “Rodents are really clever and they have a sort of bait shyness,” she explained to us. “They will try a little bit of the bait and then take it, but if they notice immediately that they get sick they will not come back to that bait again, and if they don’t die, they build up resistance.” Governments are also tightening restrictions on chemical rodenticides, especially the European Union. Bosma said MetaMeta decided to find a more natural solution to this emerging rat problem. They couldn’t just do nothing, she argued—by some estimates, up to 15% to 20% of a smallholder farmer’s crops can be lost to rodents, both in fields and during storage.
Through laboratory research and field experiments, Bosma said her team thinks they’ve landed on a promising solution: naturally grown botanicals that are poisonous to rodents at certain concentrations, but biodegradable and harmless to predators and scavengers. As she explained it, the path to get to this particular innovation wasn’t easy.
“A biological rodenticide had never been developed before.”
“A biological rodenticide had never been developed before, nor has there been, let’s say, a more comprehensive approach that combines different measures,” Bosma told us. “The main thing we’ve developed with periods of experimenting, research, and development is a biological product which is based on two plants, to botanicals, to add to bait which basically functions as a rodenticide. So, we’ve proven the effectiveness over multiple rounds of field and lab testing in parallel, and eventually, one prototype was selected that we felt had the highest effectiveness using the lowest concentration.” She believes their natural rodenticide is more effective than the chemical kind because it acts on the pests in a delayed manner, not affecting rodents until three or four days after consumption, “which means the rats cannot make that association to the food eaten three or four days ago,” she said. They’re also confident that these plants don’t harm other species or bioaccumulate in the environment.
Technology and teamwork go together
MetaMeta declined to identify the exact plants their work is centered on, as they consider this information to be sensitive proprietary knowledge. But Bosma stressed throughout her discussion with us that, while the botanicals are a centerpiece, these natural, organically grown rodenticides are only one piece of the complete puzzle. The method of intervention is critical.
An entire community must work together in tandem; otherwise, the rodents simply move within it. Women entrepreneurs can grow bio-rodenticide source plants, prepare them for application, and conduct training sessions to ensure that this technology is used effectively.
Luwieke Bosma and MetaMeta are optimistic and enthusiastic, proud that their team is on the cusp of mainstreaming an innovation that zeros in on what she feels is an issue in global food security that has been ignored for too long. “A big issue with rodent management is that it’s something that receives very little attention,” she said. This is the type of innovation–a novel idea addressing an overlooked problem–where we can add value at Grow Further.
— Grow Further
Photo credit: Maize damaged by rodents. Luwieke Bosma.