Ken Neethling: Biocontrol champion

Ken Neethling, CEO, BCP
Ken Neethling, CEO, BCP

Ken Neethling is the chief executive officer of Biocontrol Products (BCP) based in South Africa. An engineer by training, he started working for BCP 13 years ago. Commercial biocontrol was a relatively new concept then, he says. Along the way, he became exposed to commercial fermentation and the world of microbes. Today, he manages the business and works with a “very competent team”.

BCP started as a biocontrol company, initially producing a fungal nematicide (egg stage) to work alongside those targeted at adult nematodes in an IPM program. In 1997, the Biological Control of Locusts and Grasshoppers (LUBILOSA) project approached BCP to commercially produce Green Muscle®, a flagship product, for the control of locusts, relates Ken. BCP has subsequently used its platforms of research, registrations, and production to bring other microbes to a commercial level. BCP’s range today includes many bacteria, fungi and plant extracts—for a diversity of uses in agriculture, including growth promotion, insecticides, nematicides, fungicides, and nutrition.

What are the prospects of biological control products in Africa?
BCP’s corporate slogan is “restoring nature’s balance”. In many respects this sums up the case for biocontrol products: They’re natural, generally safe to nontargets and already found in nature; they have a smaller environmental footprint and work in harmony with nature; they restore balance; this recognizes that the way we have historically treated our environment was out of balance. Restoring balance also implies sustainability and “subeconomic threshold” control strategies.

Biocontrol products are not a silver bullet—they’re part of a solution. When considering the growing global population that needs to be fed, the fertile soils of Africa are also part of the solution.

If Africa’s decision makers are receptive, then I believe biological control has a bright future in this continent.

IITA was part of the team that developed Green Muscle® years ago. The technology is one product of research that has proved quite successful. Tell us more about Green Muscle®.
I have a very high regard for IITA’s researchers…The development of Green Muscle® was truly a multidisciplinary, multicultural and multinational success story. BCP’s contribution to the development of Green Muscle® was in the areas of production, stability, formulation, costing, packaging, and providing product for trials. Over the years, BCP has also provided training on aspects of quality control and standard operating procedures. We advise on storage and provide analytical services to our Green Muscle® customers. BCP has also contributed to the registration process in some of the affected countries.

Ken Neethling, CEO of Biocontrol Products, South Africa. Photo from K. Neethling.
Ken Neethling with colleague Sifiso showing off one of BCP's industrial fermenters. Photo from K. Neethling.

Why did it take Green Muscle® almost 10 years from development to deployment to get into the market when it was so obviously a very effective product?
BCP is but one of the many champions of Green Muscle®. We worked tirelessly over the last 10 years. There were, and still are, many challenges.

The technology had to break new ground. For example, biocontrol has a completely different mode of action to the commonly used synthetic chemicals—it is slower acting on the knockdown, but with a longer residual and less environmental effect. In the case of Green Muscle®, the locusts stop feeding after 2 days. They become lethargic and, due to predation (they’re safe for birds and mammals to eat) they are quickly picked off. So the challenge was to show that not having hundreds of poisoned locust cadavers lying around was a good result!

The other challenge was cost—I’m sure many can appreciate that a biocontrol product, produced initially in small quantities, would have a very hard time competing in terms of price or cost against chemicals churned out in massive factories. Make no mistake, cost is important and especially in locust control, every dollar needs to be stretched to extract maximum benefit.

However, cost is a much bigger picture than simply the price of the active ingredient per hectare. Recent studies have indicated that the lifecycle cost of chemical control (including disposal of obsolete stock, soil decontamination, loss of pollination services, etc.), is higher than that of biocontrol.

I believe that there is still scope for even wider deployment—for example, preventative treatment campaigns in eco-sensitive breeding grounds that could prove more cost-effective than an emergency response to an outbreak.

What have been your challenges and opportunities in marketing Green Muscle®?
Our main marketing challenge is that we have so many different “customers” to consider.

First and most importantly the general population, who risk losing their food and livelihood to locust swarms of sometimes biblical proportions; the governmental plant protection departments of the various countries, who manage smaller campaigns within their borders; regional (i.e., cross border) emergency outbreak management bodies that largely depend on external funding; the United Nations, which coordinate and disperse donor funding for locust control; and the donor community, who ultimately hold the purse strings that need to be opened in large emergency campaigns.

How much is the demand for Green Muscle® in Africa?
Demand is obviously directly linked to locust outbreaks and contingent donor funding. To be honest, it has been frustratingly sporadic. This is not ideal from a production perspective, as it is more cost-effective to run continuously, with regular planned off-takes. To date, supply has been able to keep up, but we have also had to burn the midnight oil a few times in an emergency.

Is there any interest in the product outside Africa?
Yes there is interest outside Africa. My interpretation of this is that “good news travels fast”. But finding the right partners, doing trials, establishing market potential, drawing up agreements, licensing and all the other factors mean that this type of product can never be expected to be an “overnight success”.

What is the outlook of biocontrol, in general, in Africa? The world?
In summary, I would say the outlook is good, but this needs work and commitment from all stakeholders before it can have a meaningful impact on Africa. The same would apply to the rest of the world, except that consumer awareness (and hence demand) is higher in the developed world.

Do you think biocontrol would become competitive enough against chemical-based control measures?
Historically it can be argued that biocontrol hasn’t challenged chemical-based control measures, but that was partly due to the way we viewed this notion of control. What we have seen is that novel strains and human ingenuity are helping to make biocontrol a worthy alternative to chemicals. We’ve experienced this first hand with Green Muscle® in large-scale control operations, where we have had control comparable to that of the chemicals. In some extreme situations, such as in Algeria, we saw exceptional control, a level greater than 90%.

What would help to popularize the adoption of biocontrol technologies?
This challenge requires total commitment from many diverse stakeholders. But the basic principle, “Use it or lose it,” applies. Biocontrol technologies must be used and must make a difference in areas that count; otherwise they will forever remain in the research domain.

Green Muscle has gone the way of traditional R&D (i.e., research/science -> product development -> commercialization). When should the private sector come in?
Necessity is the mother of invention, so while I lean towards the commercial sector as being more in touch with the needs of the market, there is nothing to say that scientists can’t also fulfill this role. What is important is that there is a clear path to market, with early involvement of a commercial partner and good communication among all stakeholders during the development cycle.

What is needed to push agricultural technologies, such as biocontrol, from the research shelves to the market and eventually to the intended end-users?
A lot of money, for starters! Much more than I think anyone ever estimated. And a lot of time too. It needs product champions across the board: in government, in research, in the media, and in the procurement and purchasing channels.

What would you tell scientists or research organizations, such as IITA, working on biocontrol development?
There is a lot of good work being done by scientists around the world—biocontrol technology development is one of the many exciting and challenging areas with so much potential. The aim of science is to increase knowledge for the purposes of serving humanity and protecting our planet—whatever we research, develop, and commercialize must have these values as their foundation.