Holding a container of a powdery substance in one hand and a stick in the other, Lasso Soar gradually pours the powder into a jar of water and turns the mixture with the stick. He explains, “This is the neem powder. I’m trying to make a biological insecticide with neem.”
The 34-year-old farmer lives in Kaélé, a village in the Far North Region of Cameroon. On a two-hectare plot of land, he grows tomatoes, okra, cabbage, green beans, parsley, and celery. For three years, he has been using a biological insecticide he makes himself.
Like other farmers in Kaélé, Mr. Soar’s crops are attacked by various pests. He says, “There are, for example, flies that land on fruit and damage them. There are also caterpillars that eat the stems and leaves.”
Mr. Soar previously used a powdery chemical insecticide that he diluted in water and sprayed on his plants. While the chemical insecticide worked, it had several drawbacks. He explains: “This chemical insecticide is not available in the village. You have to go all the way into town to buy it. In addition, the box costs 8,000 CFA francs ($15 US) and it is only enough for two uses. I’ve spent too much [on these chemicals].”
Mr. Soar learned how to make his own biological insecticide at a training workshop offered by his agricultural co-op. After just one test of the neem product, he was convinced. With a big grin, he says: “For the last two harvests, I haven’t lost anything to pests. It’s really great. Neem-based insecticide is effective, it’s convenient, and it doesn’t cost me anything since I have lots of neem seeds.”
He explains how he makes the neem powder used in the insecticide: “The process is fairly simple. We must dehusk the dry neem seeds. We do this by pounding them in a mortar. We have to manually separate the seeds from the hulls. Then, we remove all the seeds that show signs of mould. We grind the seeds with a hand or maize mill. And that’s how you get neem powder.”
Once the powder is ready, he prepares the insecticide. He pours 10 litres of water into a container and adds a handful of grated laundry soap and 500 grams of neem powder. He mixes the ingredients and lets the mixture stand for one day. Then, in the late afternoon or early evening, he strains the mixture and pours the resulting liquid into a spray bottle, ready to use.
Mr. Soar cautions that farmers can’t use the insecticide at just any time. He explains: “We must apply the insecticide in the late afternoon or early evening because the sun reduces the effectiveness of the insecticide. If the plants are already infected, we apply the insecticide twice a week.”
Yaouba is another farmer who recently started using neem insecticide. He sprays the product to prevent caterpillars from attacking his millet. He says: “I use this insecticide preventively once every 10 days. I started [using it] the day after sowing and I will do it until a week before harvest. I made this choice for economic reasons. I save money by using the biological insecticide. Also, I use this insecticide a lot because it has no negative effects on my health.”
Michel Nkeng is a researcher at the Institute of Agricultural Research for Development, an organization which is attached to the Cameroon Ministry of Research. He says the neem-based insecticide effectively manages a variety of pests. He adds, “Neem contains several active ingredients, including azadirachtin, which blocks their [insects’] development.”
The researcher explains that azadirachtin—pronounced a-za-de-rak-tin—stops caterpillars from growing and prevents them from reproducing. The biological pesticide blocks their breathing, rendering them unable to feed and eventually killing them.
For Mr. Soar, knowing how to make his own insecticide is liberating. He no longer has to worry about the availability of insecticides because he has an abundant supply of neem at his disposal. And that gives him peace of mind.
This story was originally published in April 2016.