A solution for the next big super grain?


Teff, used as a primary ingredient to prepare injera, has for long been considered as an ordinary, yet cherished grain by Ethiopians. The local obsession with teff is now spreading within the global community.

Dubbed the “next big super grain”, the gluten-free nutritious teff is rich in calcium, iron and protein. Despite its growing popularity globally, smallholder farmers in Ethiopia continue the traditional practice of cultivating the ancient grain. Farmers rely on hand-weeding methods in their farms without using a form of herbicide. About a year ago, Dow AgroChemicals, a subsidiary of the American multinational chemical corporation Dow Chemical Company, emerged with a solution for weed eradication. The solution called, Pallas 45 OD, is used to control weeds in teff, thereby increasing productivity. Gael Hili, regional leader of Dow AgroSciences LLC for Africa and the Middle East, was in Ethiopia to promote the newly-developed herbicide. Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter sat down with Hili at Becho wereda of the Oromia Regional State, some 80 km south-west of the capital, to talk about the new product and the activities of the company in Ethiopia.



A solution for the next big super grain?

Gael Hili  (pictured, above)


The Reporter: Why is teff chosen for the herbicide Pallas 45? There are a variety of other crops you may embark on.

Gael Hili: We had embarked on other crops in Ethiopia even before Pallas 45 had been introduced on teff. We were selling other products for other crops. We were selling products for cereals; we were selling products for fruits and vegetables. What makes the teff-Pallas story different at this time in question is that it’s teff. It is making a difference because it’s a staple food for Ethiopia. It is part of the culture of the country. When we did discover that we had a solution for teff, we were excited because we know how important that crop is for the country. But Dow AgroSciences is not only focused on teff, or it’s not a company of Pallas 45 only. We have lots of solutions bringing to Ethiopia and to the world.

Bringing herbicides specifically for staple crops like teff might have triggered serious looks at least from the concerned authorities. How was the process or the negotiation to bring Pallas into the country? How did you manage to convince authorities? 

We do not have to convince them. The Ethiopian government like most other countries has very clear rules on how to bring herbicides into the country. They have a very strict rule. They have many steps in the registration process. It is not really a negotiation at all. We had to bring data which describe about the usage and impacts of the product on the environment. We had to provide those to the Ethiopian authorities and they had looked at our studies and had them evaluated. Finally, they approved. It is not a negotiated process. They have to allow based on the evidences. We seriously follow legal procedures only.

You train farmers about precautions to be taken before applying Pallas 45. The farmers are required to seriously follow the instructions on applying Pallas herbicides on their farm. What if something goes wrong?

Can we guarantee every farmer? Are we going to be behind every farmer? We can’t be. It’s obvious. This is why proper usage of our product is essential. This is why we are putting much efforts while promoting the product; not only on saying how good it is for the farmer, but also how important it is to use it in the proper way. It goes hand in hand. For companies like ours selling and promoting herbicides or insecticides, proper usage is as important as the product. It matters to us. Is there an absolute guarantee that the farmer will follow all the steps? We can’t be behind every farmer. What we can do is train as many farmers as possible. Our team is on the ground in Ethiopia. The main element of their job is that farmers are aware of the safe usage of the product. The right usage of the product has been seen five years ago here. The product has been used in the Western world. It has been in use on wheat. It fulfills all the necessary requirements of the Western markets. For us it is an advantage to have such a product approved by the US and other markets.

Ethiopia is an agrarian economy with a lot of concerns with regard to pesticides and herbicides. From your observations, how best placed is the country when it comes to using such technologies? 

I am impressed by the way the Ethiopian government, in the years, has structured its agriculture. It is impressive to see how much resources are deployed down to the farm level or down to the village level to help farmers improve the way they do agriculture. I believe that the structure, in the way we want to approach things in Ethiopia, is very important. We want to cooperate with the existing structure, if we don’t, we would be stupid not to do so. For me comparing with the other African countries, Ethiopia has reached the level of organized agriculture which is very good.

You have also been in close contact with Ethiopian agricultural research institutes and experts. What are your areas of cooperation? 

Our collaboration was to make sure what we do about teff. We did not know about teff before. After realizing we could have a solution for teff, we needed to find who knows better about teff. They were happy to see a company like us had a potential solution for the crop. Hence, we had grouped both our efforts. In order to make sure that we had the right solution and finding the right doze rates for the farmers, testing it to make sure it always is safe to use are the things we were doing together. Their knowledge of the crop itself is a thousand-fold better than whatever we will achieve. I would say it was a win-win cooperation. They were interested by our solution because the objective of teff research institute is to increase the productivity of the crop in the country. Hence, they had seen the benefits and we had worked with them very well.

Pallas 45 is a trademarked and patented product. Is Dow AgroSciences going to monopolize the supply market? 

It will be supplied only by Dow AgroSciences. There is a patent right. Patents are there to protect companies for their valuable investments.  We have invested lots of our time and money. Developing and bringing a molecule we have invested some USD 200 million worldwide. It’s an investment made to develop the molecule, Pyroxulam. The investment includes the process from bringing the molecule from research to market stages. From the time of discovery, it takes ten years to develop the product. We are ready to do such things as a corporation only if we have some time where we are protected for what we do. Otherwise, if somebody comes and sells the same product or copies it, then it will be worthless to invest. Pallas, which made up an active molecule Pyroxulam, has been patented until 2022. After that time the patent will expire so that other companies may use the molecule to develop their own but with other product names.

There are many reputed companies which have been in the country for long. What makes Dow AgroSciences peculiar in the business of herbicides, pesticides or other products?

What makes us different from most of our competitors today is that we are investing big time in Ethiopia. We are opening an office; hiring local employees. I think that makes us different. Ethiopia is a strategic country for the company across Africa. We have a few strategic countries in Africa and Ethiopia has become one of those countries.

The ecology and climate varies across the country and how does Pallas fit to such conditions? 

We had tested it all over the country. During the test phase, we were able to see how it works wherever teff is grown.

Are you prepared enough to fully satisfy the demand? In case the number of farmers who use Pallas 45 increases over time, what will be the situation?

We have a supply chain, tailor-made to Ethiopia. First of all we have a local distributor and every year we assess and forecast the demand. We have some security buffers which will see we are bringing enough products to Ethiopia for the next harvest season. If these exceeding demands were unanticipated, we can react. We have that capacity to supply the required amounts of product. The supply side is not an issue for us. The challenge is to outreach the farmers and train them on how they would use the product in a safer way.

The pricing of your product is an issue for some farmers we approached. They said they were charged some 1,000 birr for a liter of Pallas 45. And some of the farmers say they cannot afford it 

Few things here we need to clarify. Smallholder farmers do not necessarily need to buy a liter. They need less than that volume. This product has a different amount of volume packages. For  instance, for a hectare it will be enough to apply 0.4 liter. Hence, a farmer who ploughs half a hectare will need to use 200 milliliter only. We are providing smaller volumes based on the needs of the farmer. Even if that might not be the case for all the farmers, there are those who are able to benefit a 30 percent or so yield increase. An impact of such increase on yield will give some sort of command on the price of the product to reimburse ten times. Hence, the price is not an issue. Yes you are right that not all farmers have the money in their pockets. We are trying to cooperate with some microfinance institutions to provide finances for some farmers who need to buy the product.

What will be your immediate market target? 

Our target is not that immediate. We had started a year ago when the product on teff was registered. We want to reach as many farmers as possible. We need to train them. There will be a continuous effort here. We need to organize training sessions and information stations across the country so that we will make farmers to be aware of the product and how they can use it properly.

Sourced here  http://www.thereporterethiopia.com/index.php/interview/item/2638-a-solution-for-the-next-big-super-grain?

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