Montana State University

MSU professor wins grant for work in Africa

November 20, 2013 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Women farmers in Kenya plant corn with a fresh batch of the mixture that kills Striga, or witchweed. (Photo by Sonya Iverson).Field of maize planted with the mixture that kills Striga, or witchweed. (Photo by Sonya Iverson). The Striga project began when David Sands, seated at left, and his brother, John, seated at right, were looking for a way to fight malnutrition in Kenya. Standing at left behind them is Kenyan plant pathologist Sila Nzioka, who came to MSU to learn the technique David Sands developed. Standing at right is Ben Kanyenji, senior agronomist/sorghum breeder for the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute. (Photo courtesy of David Sands). Striga, also known as witchweed, kills corn, millet and sorghum, often before the crops even break the surface of the ground.

Women farmers in Kenya plant corn with a fresh batch of the mixture that kills Striga, or witchweed. (Photo by Sonya Iverson).   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571

BOZEMAN – Women in one Kenyan village are fighting malnutrition with a toothpick, fungus and a clump of treated rice, says Montana State University professor David Sands.

Now women in 50 Kenyan villages can do the same with the $100,000 grant Sands just received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Gates Foundation announced Nov. 20 that Sands was one of more than 80 people this year to receive a Grand Challenges Explorations Grant to carry out their bold ideas for overcoming challenges to global health. As MSU’s first recipient, Sands said he will share his 18-month grant with his Kenyan collaborators.

“It’s very scary. Be careful what you dream for,” Sands said, explaining that he now has to prove his discovery in a wider arena.

Fifty-five women from the village of Ekwanda have been testing his discovery since 2006, said Sands, a professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology. Ekwanda is a small rural village north of Kisumu, the principal city in western Kenya. The women – most of them widows whose husbands have died from HIV, malaria, dengue fever or other causes -- are responsible for growing food and providing an income for their families. However, a parasitic weed called Striga, or witchweed, kills 30 to 80 percent of their corn, millet and sorghum before the crops break the surface of the ground. The women spend 80 percent of their waking hours during weeding season (three to five months a year) weeding.

“If they can’t produce corn, they starve,” Sands said.

Sands was inspired to help by his late brother, Dr. John P. Sands, Jr., who was chairman of the Urology Department and director of Surgical Services at the Naval Medical Center San Diego before retiring from the Navy in 2000. Later, while working in a hospital in west Kenya, John Sands realized that malnutrition was the number one problem behind his patients’ health issues.

“They were starving to death,” Sands said.

To look for solutions, the brothers formed The Starfish Foundation about five years ago through the All Souls’ Episcopal Church of Point Loma in San Diego, and David Sands headed into the cornfields of Kenya. Perhaps he could find unhealthy Striga that would indicate the presence of a natural enemy or a weakness he might exploit.

The search paid off when Sands discovered four strains of fungus among the weeds. After testing them in his MSU lab, he focused on improving one fungus to make it even more effective against Striga. Sands also developed a simple, inexpensive way to grow and plant the fungus.

It involved growing the fungus in a petri dish. “After three days, it’s fungal paradise,” Sands said. Then he placed about 50 wooden toothpicks in the petri dish so they were coated by fungus. After three days, he removed the toothpicks and set them aside to dry. The coated toothpicks will last five years if they stay wrapped, Sands said.

When the time came to plant corn, he placed one coated toothpick into a batch of boiled, cooled rice or sorghum, Sands said. After three days in a covered container, the rice turned pink and he had enough fungus to fight Striga. The women of Ekwanda placed the rice into a hole on top of compost. Then they planted three kernels of corn on top of it.

The women of Ekwanda helped prove that the fungus kills Striga without harming the environment, Sands said. They also demonstrated that the Striga biocontrol would save labor, increase crop yields and create more room to grow crops.

Sands shared his technique with Kenyan plant pathologist Sila Nzioka who came to MSU in 2011 to learn it from Sands. Nzioka works in the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, the equivalent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sands also described his discovery to the Gates foundation when he applied for a grant earlier this year.

On the merit of that 1 ½-page application -- without knowing Sands’ name, institution or research history, to avoid prejudice or preference -- the Gates foundation awarded him a grant. It was his fifth attempt, Sands said.

He encouraged other researchers to keep trying for such grants. He also urged MSU students to look for global problems they can help solve and warned them that problems are interwoven.  In Kenya, for example, the women who tested his techniques not only faced malnutrition, but drought, the possibility of crop failure and socio-economic problems.

“I teach all my students this: If you want to work on a world-class problem, you have to work on four,” Sands said. “They don’t come in nice single packets. … You have to figure out how to weave through them all.”

In addition to the grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Sands has received funding for his Striga research from other foundations, including the Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation. The Starfish Foundation paid for supplies, as well as the salary of Lydia Anderson of Missoula, who worked on the Striga project as an undergraduate student.  Anderson graduated in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in biology.  

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or