Announcing 4-year Research Partnership

KOMAZA is excited to announce a four-year research partnership with the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI). We are participating in KEFRI’s nationwide entomology research project to better understand the eucalyptus pest blue gum chalcid (BGC). The project will test mitigation strategies in order to limit the ravaging effects the chalcid wasp has on eucalyptus plantations.

The economic impacts of BGC

Blue gum chalcid, Leptocybe invasa (Hymenoptera: Eulophidae) is a pest that has invaded eucalyptus, stunting tree growth and in some cases causing broad mortality across woodlots. Given that eucalyptus is a significant part of Kenya’s forest cover, with over 90 species present in Kenya, the tree is a vital contributor to the national supply of wood. Some estimate that it contributes about KSH 1 billion to the economy each year. It is critical to protect farmers from the blue gum chalcid, as widespread mortality would cause significant economic losses.

The spread of BGC

The pest originates in Australia and came to Kenya in 2002 by way of Israel, migrating down through northern Africa. It is now causing mortality in woodlots in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania – and is expected to continue marching toward South Africa. Within Kenya, the chalcid wasp has affected trees in Nyanza, Western, Central Rift Valley, Eastern, and Coast Provinces. Introduced to the Coast in 2003, the pest spread across most Coastal districts by 2009. KEFRI has been monitoring the spread of BGC attacks along the Coast since 2005.

Ngumbao Karisa (X-farm employee), Eston Mutitu (Senior Entomologist at KEFRI) and Clare Hunt discuss the research trial.

Responses to BGC

Effectively managing BGC is a challenge. Widespread use of chemical controls (such as systemic insecticide Methomyl or Methomex 90SP) is both environmentally unsound and economically unviable. Species diversification is one effective way to reduce the spread and severity of BGC attacks, a step that KOMAZA is embarking on with the introduction of the indigenous Melia volkensii as part of KOMAZA’s evolving farmer package (research continues into other commercially viable tree species).

One of the most effective pest management strategies is a Classical Biological Control (CBC) strategy, which involves the introduction of a biological control agent that is a natural enemy of blue gum chalcid. KEFRI has identified two parasitoids, Quardivasticus mendeli (QM) and Selitrichody koycevv (SK) as potential biological control agents which together have been effectively used against BGC in Israel and elsewhere in East Africa. It is these two parasitoids that KEFRI is evaluating in this “biological control” study.

Trial design details

KEFRI has applied for – and been approved for – governmental permits to import Quardivasticus mendeli (QM) and Selitrichody koycevv (SK) from Israel, first to conduct safety tests and then to be introduced into BGC-infested woodlots in Kenya. These parasitoids have been screened against a number of indigenous trees and plant species similar to eucalyptus to ensure that they will not have unintended effects on the ecosystem.

The trial design involves three plots of 500 eucalyptus trees each, each plot planted with different types of eucalyptus (E. urophylla, GC167, and GC10). KOMAZA’s plots are part of dozens of test plots in three provinces across the country (with at least three test plots per region in Western, Nyanza, and Coast provinces), which will be both pre- and post-release monitoring sites for several years after woodlot planting.

We will collect data on the incidence and severity of blue gum chalcid on the three trial plots. Then, the two parasitoids will be released onto the woodlots and data collection will continue to see whether the incidence and severity of BGC attacks decrease due to the natural predators. Specifically, the research will determine:

  1. The population and damage dynamics of BGC in the Coastal region
  2. The most effective method of the biological control agent’s release by assessing its establishment and dispersal rates
  3. The impact of the parasitoids on reducing the impact incidence and severity of BGC

The team is collecting data on the incidence of BGC on the trial plot trees. To do so we shake the tree leaves over a white sheet and count how many fall out.

BCG are very small - hard to see with the naked eye. The team examines the sheet for any pests.

KOMAZA role in the trial

KOMAZA’s role is to plant and maintain three research plots of eucalyptus, each plot containing a different variety of the tree. KOMAZA will gather data on blue gum chalcid outbreaks. Over time, KOMAZA will help KEFRI analyze the data from various research plots across Kenya to determine the effectiveness of the parasitoids in stemming the spread of BGC. As well, KEFRI hypothesizes that E. urophylla, unlike other types of eucalyptus, is not a host of BCG, and can thus act as a natural buffer to the spread of BGC; therefore the incidence of BGC on E. urophylla will be comparatively analyzed to see if this hypothesis bears out with the data.

KEFRI’s role in the trial

KEFRI’s role is to lead the research trial, which involves:

  • Providing technical expertise and necessary equipment
  • Conducting site visits several times a year and as necessary if any problems arise
  • Analyzing data as part of larger study
  • Publishing the summary article in a scientific journal

The research will be conducted over the next four years, and the results of which are expected to be communicated in an academic journal.

Our experimental farm

The joint research is just one trial that KOMAZA is conducting on its experimental farm – the “X-Farm.” KOMAZA is committed to conducting best practice research about our crops – to ensure that they grow as successfully as possible while establishing a net positive environmental impact. We make operational improvements based on our research findings which help us better serve our farmers.

Meaghan Hawes, former Director of Crop Production, watches as Eston Mutitu, Senior Entomologist at KEFRI, signs an MOU to formalize the project with KOMAZA.

Wharton Wrap-up

Lige, Kevin and Kathy (left to right) discuss ideas in KOMAZA's innovation room.

With all the insight we gained in the field, our team wrapped up our two-week stay with some intensive solution-seeking. Each new idea had to be assessed in the context of local circumstances. The realities of KOMAZA’s work involve challenges from widespread farmer illiteracy and human resource limitations to vast and remote geography and community ties that compromise objectivity.

Operating an ambitious nonprofit in this context requires some creative problem solving. We found ourselves thinking big (PIN access codes!), thinking small (stamps!) but much like Goldilocks, often concluding that the simplest, baby bear solutions are often the ones that are “just right” (pen and paper).

Importantly, we sought solutions that were not only practical but localized, trying our best to think about what Japhet or Irene would want in each situation. In the end, part of the answer was found simply by asking them. The rest we imported, improvised, and invented as best we could, with rigorous input from the KOMAZA staff and peer organizations like One Acre Fund.

Our proposed structural changes center on training, performance, and communication, with a smattering of quick tactical hits across other areas. For example, we have created a comprehensive training and performance evaluation plan for farmers, facilitators and field officers. KOMAZA has just hired someone to take this on as a part of field learning and development; he’ll be arriving this June.

The processes, tools, and metrics that we leave behind, we hope, will strengthen KOMAZA and help it realize its ambitious goals of scale and impact – ultimately, helping the impoverished farmers it serves. We look forward to receiving updates from KOMAZA one, two and even five years down the line. We have every confidence that the news will be as exciting and inspiring as we’ve found the last two weeks to be.

Field Learning with Wharton Team

Pausing to take notes during field interviews

I trekked through Ganze for three days this week, stepping outside my role in Procurement and Logistics to translate for Wharton’s visiting research team. During my visits to Ganze I learnt a lot, including the ways in which field staff carry out daily activities to make their work and KOMAZA more successful.

The Facilitators meet with farmers several times a month for training and shamba visits, and they see Field Officers twice a week to discuss farmers’ challenges and how to overcome them. The Facilitators have made their own scheduling tool to help plan farmer visits, which can be adjusted in cases of emergencies.

Farmers in rural Kenya generally don’t follow a set schedule, however. Family, funerals and time-sensitive agricultural activities can draw farmers away from home on the day of a scheduled visit. Given these logistical challenges, the Wharton team asked Facilitators how they ensure farmers are up-to-date with their visits.

One Facilitator named Japheth said that he calls all farmers who have a mobile phone. Many farmers, however, don’t have phones. In these cases, Japheth organizes a way for farmers to receive and deliver information through neighbors who happen to be their friends. Creative problem solving like this is required on a day-to-day basis in the field.

Joseph, a Facilitator, talks with farmer Kanze about the progress of her jatropha farm.

I also learnt how KOMAZA field employees effectively communicate information between their team and nearly 1000 widely disbursed farmers. They pass messages from the office to the field following a top-down communication chain that relies on word-of-mouth and mobile phones. Information flows in a structured way: Headquarters → Field Managers → Field Officers → Facilitators → Farmers. We receive feedback from farmers and field staff through a bottom-up approach by reversing the same chain. This channel of communication ensures that each and every farmer and field employee has a means of voicing their opinion and receiving reliable information.

Farmers’ enthusiastically received Wharton’s research team in one of Kenya’s most remote regions, where foreign guests are rare. A farmer called David even brought out a visitor’s book for everyone to sign, including the KOMAZA Field Officer and Facilitator. Our brief visit has seems to have encouraged farmers to work even harder to make their farms a success.

Kanze Kithi stands with her KOMAZA jatropha. She was so eager to have visitors at her shamba.

Lige, part of Wharton's research team, stands with Joseph and me at the end of a successful day.

Wharton Team Hits the Ground Running!

Our field research began with a trek through Ganze, shadowing four Facilitators on visits to 22 farms. We then held two days of interviews with more than a dozen Facilitators and three Field Officers. With the aid of our translators – Juliet, Roselyn, Tina and Nancy – we discovered KOMAZA’s many strengths as well as some areas for development.

Walking from farm to farm, we found that Facilitators are knowledgeable about their jobs, follow well-structured farmer visit schedules and respond rapidly to pest issues. We were impressed with the commitment and ingenuity of many Facilitators.

Irene, a Petanguo Facilitator, rolled up her sleeves and showed a new farmer how to pull weeds and mulch, speaking passionately about the importance of these activities for the trees’ health. Japhet, a young Ganze Facilitator with a shy disposition, proactively found cell phone access for his farmers in order to enable communications between his regular shamba visits.

Lige (left) from the Wharton Team interviews Japhet (right), a KOMAZA Facilitator. Juliet (center), KOMAZA's logistics manager, helps with translation.

Some areas of opportunity we identified include:
• Reducing the variability in Facilitators’ days. Depending on bicycle breakdowns and pest spraying, the length of work days can vary by 4 hours or more. Facilitators typically fill extra time with additional shamba visits, but a more regular schedule could result in greater efficiency.
• Developing a visit schedule that is scalable. Facilitators are adamant about visiting all shambas twice per month, but as shambas grow older and stronger they require fewer visits. For KOMAZA to scale, we need an easy-to-understand scheduling system that adjusts for shamba age.
• Developing processes for training, internal communications and performance evaluations. As happens with all start-ups, KOMAZA has reached the size at which it must codify information and processes for efficient practices and internal communications and continued professional development as the organization grows.

KOMAZA has achieved great things, which we were fortunate to see firsthand, and we look forward to brainstorming solutions and leaving behind tools to help KOMAZA in its next stage of growth.

Thanks to the KOMAZA team for welcoming us into the organization and providing the support and resources that have helped us to learn so much, so quickly. We are honored to be a part of your team!

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