Finding natural solutions for devastating insects pests in West Africa
4 October 2023
By Milly Sell
This researcher is developing eco-friendly insect control methods to protect crops — and sharing her work with farmers in Benin and beyond
Dr Yeyinou Laura Estelle Loko(opens in new tab/window) had dreamed of becoming a researcher since childhood. Growing up in Benin, she observed the struggles of smallholder farmers and felt there was an opportunity to help through scientific research.
During research for her doctoral thesis, she became aware of the devastating effects of insect attacks on food crops — and inadequacies in the current approach to control them:
This revelation led her to seek environmentally friendly control methods to protect crops against insects.
Laura went on to get her PhD in plant genetic resources and crop protection from the University of Abomey-Calavi(opens in new tab/window), Benin, in 2013. She is now an Associate Professor of Zoology and Genetics at the National University of Sciences, Technologies, Engineering and Mathematics (UNSTIM)(opens in new tab/window) in the Republic of Benin. She continues to focus on reducing losses caused by insect pests.
This year, her research with food security was recognized when she was awarded a 2023 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Early Career Women Scientists in the Developing World.
A balancing act
Her path from childhood aspiration to career specialism may appear to be smooth, but it was not without obstacles, particularly as she became a parent herself:
Being an African woman scientist has its constraints. One of the most important is the balance between family life and career. I’m a mother of five children and occupy an administrative function in addition to teaching and research. It is not easy to reconcile this on a daily basis!
She attributes her ability to overcome these difficulties to support and inspiration from her family, along with her own resolve:
My mother and husband are my daily support. They encourage me to give the best of me in my career. I’ve had to face many challenges to be who I am today but have been able to overcome them with determination and hard work.
Urgent research into Dinoderus porcellus and stored yam chips
A key research project Laura has been working on since her doctoral thesis is the development of an integrated pest management method to reduce the proliferation of Dinoderus porcellus (a genus of bamboo powderpost beetle).
This insect is a devastating pest for stored yam chips in West Africa. This was also an area with surprisingly little existing research:
Yams are a staple food in Benin and West Africa. There has been research into pests affecting yams, but almost no research into those affecting the stored chips.”
About 70% of yam chip production in Benin is carried out by women. The prevailing method of control was insecticide use. With high levels of illiteracy in the community, Laura observed that many farmers were unable to read the labels of the synthetic pesticides. This was creating a raft of negative consequences:
Cases of food poisoning because of incorrect insecticide were recorded. There was also the negative impact of these insecticides on the environment. I wanted to urgently find a solution to help these women.
In the framework of developing a control strategy, Laura and her research team have explored the use of various biological control agents. This includes looking at natural enemies of the insect pest; the use of microorganisms such as entomopathogenic fungi Metarhizium anisopliae and assessing the biological activities of essential oils of lemon grass and citronella grass.
Her proposal — a first for yam farmers — is to use an integrated pest management strategy combining the various biological methods tested.
Research vs realities of funding and resources
The main challenge for Laura in progressing her work has been obtaining funding. Her research on Dinoderus porcellus was supported by funding from the World Academy of Sciences(opens in new tab/window) (TWAS), which supports the advancement of science in developing countries.
Laura and the research team have now been able to publish the results of each biological control agent tested in scientific publications. The critical next step is to ensure the information reaches those who need it most.
“We are currently seeking extra funding so we can disseminate the advice to farmers throughout the country,” she said.
There are clear routes to sharing information with farming communities, such as local rural radio, which is widely listened to. The research team also want to disseminate the seeds of yam landraces that are resistant to pest attacks.
Being a female scientist from the Global South has led to differences in her scientific experiences, Laura said:
I live and work in an environment where there is very little local scientific funding. Laboratories are very poorly equipped to conduct cutting-edge research. Consequently, some parts of my research are oriented to align with the requirements of potential funders. It can often also boil down to activities that can reasonably be carried out with the available equipment.
Laura also observes how diversity is sometimes becoming a positive when looking for funding:
It should be noted that more and more female candidates for certain competitive calls for funding have an advantage.
“Science should be shared.”
It is not only with funding that Laura observes some positive support. She also notes instances of publishing made easier thanks to her location:
“A benefit of being from the (Global) South is that I’ve been able to publish for free in some Impact Factor journals,” she said.
This has helped her share her findings more widely.
She has also benefited from open access publishing:
She believes the possibility of some free opportunities for researchers from southern countries would help more work to be published in open access journals. This stems in part from the priorities of the country scientists operate in:
Different countries have different funding allocated for science. It seems unfair if you can’t get your research out there because there isn’t funding in your country. Science should be shared.
Continued investment to protect against new threats
Currently, Laura and her research team are working on developing the formulation for a biopesticide based on entomopathogenic microorganisms and medicinal plants for crop protection. She describes this as a big focus that could help make a significant difference to food security.
The progression of this important work is partly funded by her university but also needs international support and funding:
Researchers need support. Investing in research could protect farmers and economies from devastating losses and new threats. With support, the expertise of scientists across the continent can be unlocked, so we in turn can give farmers the tools they need.