By Gatu Mbaria
A Tanzanian Company, A to Z Textile Mills, member of a consortium of companies producing OlysetR nets in Joint Venture with Sumitomo Chemicals Japan recently started to manufacture Agronets farmers can use to cover horticultural crops and prevent them from pest attacks. A to Z is partnering with the Michigan State University, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, CIRAD, France, Egerton University and International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology in a USAID funded project to test the efficacy of these netting’s.
Vector Health International (VHI) which is the name of the Joint Venture is in the process of building a new state-of-the-art research-and-development facility in Kisongo area of Arusha town which it plans to utilize to diversify its products. VHI has recently recruited a Director for the Centre, Dr Johnson O. Odera, who has been charged with the responsibility of overseeing the development and testing of new products, especially insecticide treated materials, for crop protection and vector control.
“We are using the experience we’ve had in the manufacture of mosquito nets for agriculture” said Dr Pierre F. Guillet, the company’s Field Development Specialist.
Talking to Horticultural News recently, Dr Guillet said that by using Agronets, farmers stand to save lots of cash they spend on chemicals. “Cost efficiency is something farmers understand very well”, Said Dr Guillet. He added that research carried out by CIRAD, the French government research agency, has shown that using nets to protect cabbages in Benin was 46 percent cheaper than using pesticides. Such savings can be enhanced if the Agronets were impregnated with insecticides tightly bound to the fabric.
Still, what farmers would like to know is how much the nets will be sold once A to Z embarks
on manufacturing them big scale. On this, Dr Odera said the company had been working closely with KARI in view of signing a memorandum of understanding following which KARI will contribute in the promotion and distribution of these Agronets to farmers in Kenya.
A to Z believes it has the capacity to produce Agronets in such quantities that would enable it reap economies of scale and therefore keep the prices affordable to smallholder farmers. Today, the Arusha-based consortium produces about 30 million long-lasting insecticidal mosquito nets/year (over 20,000 tons of nettings), and has regularly been raising its capacity since 2007. “We have already started manufacturing a small number of Agronets by converting five of over 400 knitting machines for the purpose” said Mr. Kalpesh Shah, a Director of A to Z.
On the numbers of Agronets it will be producing each year, A to Z says this will ultimately depend on how soon the many farmers in Kenya and elsewhere in Eastern and Central African region embrace the new technology. Dr Guillet is positive that agro netting would be readily accepted by farmers particularly now that consumers in Europe, the United States and elsewhere in the world have become averse to foods produced using chemicals. “What you produce under non-treated nets can be organic and organic foods are becoming very popular.” To Dr Guillet, agro nettings can be an easier option than either biological control of pests or integrated pest management (IPM). He says the latter methods require farmers to understand behavioral traits of the targeted pests and to spray the right amount of chemical at the right time while biological control requires superior knowledge on the natural enemies of relevant pests. But he does not rule out the integration of agro nettings into IPM.
Using Agronets is bound to raise the temperature and humidity around the covered crops. This is deemed as an added advantage in that it creates greenhouse effect at the level of the crop. However, scientists are yet to conclude the true implication of having higher temperature on the wellbeing of crops. This is part of ongoing research scientists at KARI have been doing together with their counterparts at Egerton University in Kenya.
To have a maximum effect on keeping malicious pests away including those that are tiny enough to pass through the nets, A to Z is working on how to incorporate selective repellent or insecticide products into the netting. Towards this end, it is using a similar technology as the one developed by Sumitomo Chemicals which enables gradual release of insecticides to the surface of the nets. “The color of the Agronets is also very important as some colors are attracting target pests” Dr Guillet says that by manufacturing colored nets that are also laden with insecticides, ” we stand to get even better results.”
One added advantage is that the same nets can be used for different crops for an extended period of time (up to 5 years). “But still, there will be need for adaptation” said Dr Odera.
But will Agronets be as widely accepted as mosquito nets? Dr Odera, said though this will depend on efficacy, ease of use and cost, and the potential is huge. “Obviously, we would want the technology to be adopted throughout the region and would like to capture a wider market than the one we already have for mosquito nets. After all, agriculture is practiced everywhere.”
“Our approach will mainly be lower our margins and produce in big volumes” said Dr Guillet who acknowledges that getting the nets to be accepted might take time. “But it will eventually happen.” He said that the technology has “a great future” and drew parallel with how mosquito nets came to be embraced in the global anti-malaria campaign. He recalled that initially, mosquito nets were not even considered as a tool for fighting malaria. But as the world grappled with devastating health effects of malaria mainly in tropical countries, different approaches were employed before bed nets were ultimately embraced. “For long, the prevention of malaria was by use of DDT which was sprayed in homesteads.” He explained that this generated health, environmental and economic concerns that made DDT unpopular in many countries although its use is till recommended by the World Health Organization.
Contrary to insecticides that are sprayed indoor as a tool for anti-malaria campaign, mosquito nets ended up offering the distinct advantages of being physical barriers and repelling mosquitoes once they started being impregnated with safe insecticides.
With technologies developed for mosquito nets, insecticide incorporated into nettings is present at the surface of the yarn only in very small quantities, just enough to get the desired biological effect on target pests. Furthermore, this very small amount is tightly bound to the yarn and cannot be easily removed and migrate to the crop. By treating the netting and not spraying the plants, A to Z believes that Agronets would enable farmers to produce without loading crops with chemicals which would be an added benefit to human health. This would, in a way, be a check on agricultural practices carried out by some smallholder farmers who buy whatever chemicals they can get in the market without proper instructions or even knowing that some could be restricted. “Heavy spraying is not only detrimental to human health but also exacerbates resistance in pests” said Dr Guillet.
It seems that A to Z would be targeting farmers with modest incomes. “We are interested in developing nets for small plots that will have a “greenhouse effect” on the crop and which should be affordable to smallholder farmers” said Dr Guillet who added that this would increase horticultural yields dramatically and enable farmers to use water more efficiently.
A to Z started manufacturing mosquito nets in the seventies. It has also developed a strong distribution network of over 8,000 retail shops in Tanzania alone which might come in handy once it starts distributing Agronets on a big scale. By using this network, A to Z hopes the technology will eventually be widely available to smallholder farmers at village level.
While developing the technology, A to Z has also created an impressive recycling facility for netting’s and plastic products. The objective is to collect mosquito and agricultural nettings end of the life, treated with insecticide or not and to recycle them.