Gino Martins’ research, proving a powerful link between Kenyan food security and the country’s insect population, recently catapulted him to international fame as the recipient of a prestigious £30,000 (Sh4.2 million) Whitley Award for Nature, considered the Oscar of the conservation world. But it is through his impact on East African farming that he is now becoming a rising force.
Having just completed his PhD in Biology at Harvard University, Martins is embarked on a life mission of proving to the region’s farmers the difference healthy insect populations make to yields and
Born in Israel, but raised and educated in rural Kenya by foster parents, Martins witnessed the interface between farms, food, and nature every day, nurturing an early understanding of the role of insects in pollinating food crops. “Every single person on our planet has a diet that includes food made possible by pollinating insects.
When this connection is threatened, all of humanity is threatened,” he said.
Working across East Africa, Martins has now set out to identify the most useful plants and pollinators, return them to their habitats, and help both ecosystems and local communities thrive. He sees Kenya’s
small scale farmers as key to the survival of pollinators such as moths, bees and butterflies.
Even Kenya’s highly lucrative flower export industry depends on pollinators, he says, with his favourite flower example being the African Violet, popular in Europe and the United States, with annual sales of an estimated $6bn (Sh822bn).
The flower grows wild in the Mbololo Forest in the Taita Hills, bordering Tsavo West National Park, with its natural habitat being the stretch of mountains between Kenya and Tanzania called the Eastern Arc
Mountains, of which the Taita Hills are part.
Martins discovered that the African Violet is pollinated by the long-tongued bees, which also pollinate the tomatoes and okra that farmers grow in Mbololo. This fact alone is incentive for farmers to protect the forests around them, says Martins, who teaches farmers to use chemical pesticides cautiously, avoiding spraying while insects are in flight, since most pesticides are toxic to honeybees and other pollinators, and showing farmers how to set aside fallow areas for insects to nest and rear their young ones.
Working in both Tanzania and Kenya, he cites examples where women in Tanzania now allow bees to nest on the walls of their mud huts because they know they are the pollinators of their crops “Farmers need to understand why leaving a little space for nature isn’t a luxury, but a necessity for productive, sustainable agriculture. Farmers everywhere are conservative and skeptical. So I make one or two of them my champions in the community, demonstrating the success of our techniques. When others see the proof, they all want to try it.”
Martins has also shared his vital ecosystem information with school children, travelers and scientists in Kenya and across the world.
He has worked with schoolchildren to start pollinator gardens by collecting bugs, examining hairy, eight-eyed wonders under magnifying glasses and identifying the most relevant crops and pollinators in their community.
“In largely illiterate areas, these kids are often the first in their families to go to school. They may be resource-poor, but they’re nature-rich. You couldn’t ask for better, more enthusiastic young scientists,” he says.
Pollinators in Africa are primarily wild insects that travel between farms and their natural habitat and include butterflies, moths, ants, beetles, wasps, midges and thrips. In East Africa, foods that depend on the pollination services of these wild insects include avocado, coffee, cowpeas, eggplant, mangoes, pigeon peas, pumpkins, okra, passion fruits and tomatoes.
The pollinators directly influence the quality of these food crops. For example, fruits and vegetables rich in colour are a direct result of the amount of pollination that has taken place.
Martins cites many examples of vital pollinators, but typical is the role of the Hawkmoth, which is the sole pollinator of papaya in Africa. The colour, flavour and seed quantity of papayas are direct results of the amount of pollen that’s been deposited on their frequent visits to the female papaya tree.
Other plants like watermelons, strawberries, mangoes, coffee, cowpeas and lentils need the same kind of frequent visits by pollinators to get the depth of flavour, colour and seeds.
Martins’ Whitley Award money is already funding projects channeled through The Insect Committee of Nature Kenya (The East Africa Natural History Society) that seek to unite conservation and sustainable
agriculture in and around the Rift Valley and Taita Hills and involving community based organisations, training extension workers and school groups.
“In one of my studies, I found that one in three of the foods eaten by humans is made possible by a pollinator, while in chimps it is nine out of ten foods. For a gorilla it’s two out of every three foods. It explains why exactly we cannot afford to joke with pollinators,” said Martins.
A host of other African scientists and institutions are also engaged in of local and international initiatives to help stop pollinator decline, including the African Pollinator Initiative, started by a group of African scientists and hosted by the Agricultural Research Council-Plant Protection (ARC-PPRI) South Africa and the Global Pollination Project under the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
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