KLab Korner Office- Claire Sands-Baker SC ’93 — Tackling Food Insecurity in Sub-Saharan Africa Using Biocontrol

Kravis Lab for Social Impact’s “Korner Office” is a spinoff of David Gelles’ “Corner Office” column in the New York Times’s Sunday Business section. The Korner Office includes snippets of conversations with changemakers and social entrepreneurs. This interview was conducted by Michaiah Young ’18 and column was written by Kravis Lab for Social Impact’s Media & Marketing Team Lead, Abby Parrish ‘23.

Currently, African smallholder farmers lose a large portion of their crop yields to Striga, which are among the world’s worst parasitic weeds. Instead of using toxic chemical herbicides, the Toothpick Project has developed and distributed nontoxic bioherbicides. The Toothpick Project’s bioherbicide technology, Kichawi KillTM, uses an endemic Kenyan fungal strain embedded on toothpicks to kill Striga. Kichawi KillTM is host-specific, which means that since the fungal strain kills Striga, rather than the crop, farmers have been able to increase their crop yields by more than 50% on average. Since a majority of Kenyan smallholder farmers are women, when crop yields increase, women are better able to support themselves and feed their families, making Kichawi KillTM both a biological and gender-based solution to food insecurity.

In honor of Earth Day 2021, the Korner Office is featuring Claire Sands Baker SC ’93, a social entrepreneur that is creating a positive impact on our environment. In addition to being a 2018 Kravis Lab for Social Impact Moonshot Fellow, Baker is the Co-Founder and the Director of the Toothpick Project.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

What is the Toothpick Project’s “origin story”?

In 2007, as a retired U.S. Navy surgeon, my uncle, Dr. John Sands, MD, volunteered at a Kenyan hospital. At the hospital, my uncle treated countless patients that suffered from malnutrition. One day, he asked Florence Oyosi, a Kenyan woman, why so many patients were malnourished. When Oyosi explained that Striga was one of the causes of malnourishment, my uncle contacted his brother, my father, Dr. David Sands, PhD, PO ’63, a plant pathologist at Montana State University, and the two started working on finding a solution to the problem. Ultimately, they partnered with Oyosi and Sila Nzioki, a plant pathologist at the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Organization (KALRO), and started developing the technology. In 2013, the Toothpick Project received a Grand Challenges and Exploration Grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which gave us the opportunity to conduct proof of concept trials in Kenya. The rest is really history.

How did you become involved with your dad and uncle’s work with the Toothpick Project?

I started getting involved with the Toothpick Project during the time when we were applying for the Gates Foundation grant. While my dad and my uncle were scientists, I had 25 years of experience in nonprofit management and really brought new skills to the team. Once my dad and uncle diversified their team, the project really skyrocketed into something special.

What do you look for in a mentor?

I look for mentors who have connections with other businesses, companies, and organizations. I would also say that I gravitate toward women and other moms because I feel like we all share the mindset of multitasking and making sure the job gets done.

What makes a good social entrepreneur?

Social entrepreneurs have to emphasize business, creativity, and empathy. I think that the business side of social entrepreneurship can be cultivated, but I think that empathy is really hard to learn. It’s hard to have a team full of visionaries, but I think that everyone working on a social entrepreneurship team needs to be united under and work for a common mission.

What is a challenge that the Toothpick Project has faced?

The biggest challenge that the Toothpick Project has faced has to do with the fact that our technology is groundbreaking. It has undoubtedly been a challenge for us to enter a $35 billion/year market where chemical herbicides make up the entire market. Not only has it been a challenge for us to convince people that our technology will help solve food insecurity, but it has also been a challenge to convince people that our technology works and will not adversely affect the environment. We are in an interesting situation because not many entrepreneurs would say that they want more competitors, but I actually think that it would really help us if we did. When I say that we want more competitors, I mean more bioherbicides, not chemical herbicides. When multiple businesses, companies, or organizations work in parallel or tandem to develop a new product, confidence in that product grows. So that’s where I think that we are. We need more groups developing bioherbicides that are dedicated to joining the movement with us. The market is too big and the risk of not developing bioherbicides is too big to be selfish. There is so much at stake, so I’m inclined to share this opportunity with as many people as much as possible.

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