Ruhamya Kamakiri walks through his fields spraying pesticide from a knapsack sprayer. Mr. Kamakiri is a farmer in his early twenties. He grows sweet potatoes in the hills surrounding Chiburhi, a village in the South Kivu Province of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Sweet potato is the staple food for many households in this part of the country. Over the last ten years, the cassava mosaic virus has caused a dramatic decline in cassava production, reducing availability and driving up the price. Many cannot afford to buy cassava flour.
And now, insects are attacking many fields of sweet potatoes.
Mr. Kamakiri’s field was one of those ravaged by insects. He explains, “The insects frightened me so much that I felt compelled to seek any means to destroy them. I realized that these insects would lead our village toward a severe famine.”
Mr. Kamakiri sought advice from an old farmer on how to manage the pests. The old man, Mr. Chimenesa, advised Mr. Kamakiri to protect his plants with tobacco leaves.
Mr. Kamakiri recalls, “I did not believe him initially, but without the slightest conviction that the tobacco leaves would be effective as an insecticide, I decided to try anyway.”
No one grows tobacco near his home, but Mr. Kamakiri found a few leaves near a cattle yard. He ground the leaves into powder with a mortar and pestle, then mixed them with water. He used a sprayer to douse his insect-affected plants with the mixture.
The effect was immediate. Mr. Kamakiri recalls, “The next morning, I noticed that some caterpillars were dead and the survivors had fled the tobacco’s pungent smell.”
Now he is so convinced of the biological pesticide’s effectiveness that he regularly buys green tobacco leaves from a farmer in a neighbouring village.
He had a reasonable harvest despite the damage caused by the insects. And his services are now in demand—other farmers anxious to protect their sweet potatoes pay him 2,000 Congolese francs [US $1.25] for every field he sprays.
In fact, thanks to Mr. Kamakiri, the whole village knows they can use tobacco to protect their sweet potatoes, cabbages, and other crops.
Mr. Bushiru is a local farmer. He says: “I could have also started producing my own pesticide, but I have neither the money to buy tobacco nor a sprayer. So I rely on Mr. Kamakiri’s services to protect my field against these destructive caterpillars.”
Claudine Sifa is an agricultural engineer. She confirms that tobacco leaves are effective at protecting plants from insects. She adds: “This type of pesticide has the advantage that one can immediately eat crops on which it was applied, unlike [shop-bought inorganic] chemicals that require a withdrawal period to reduce the risk of poisoning the consumer.”
But Mrs. Sifa warns that, though the biological pesticide costs less to make and use, it is only effective for a short time, and must be regularly reapplied.
Mr. Kamakiri is proud that he can protect his fields against pests. And that he’s created an income-generating activity—spraying his neighbours’ fields!
This story was originally published in August 2015.