For Sunday Times mag.........
It was a humid summer afternoon in 1984, and Dennis Thatcher was visiting ICI's 150 acre Plant Protection Division in the Surrey Hills. He was there to see an invention that it was claimed could bring sustainable food production to the parched famine stricken areas of Africa. The machine, a crop sprayer called the "Electrodyn" comprised a six-foot long stick with a nozzle at one end and torch batteries at the other.
Asking to have a go on the machine, Thatcher, amused himself spraying half a dozen plants, before pointing the nozzle in the wrong direction and spraying his trousers. Fortunately the spray was just an oil mix.
It was the year of Band Aid, the year that the haunting news footage of children with sunken faces and distended bellies took the lid off the situation in Ethiopia. That year even multinational industry was joining in the communal pangs of conscience.
The “Electrodyn” development team worked in cramped portakabins at the edge of the estate and would often take the prototypes home to tinker with in their garages. The machines looked so simple it was hard to imagine what on earth they could do. Even when they were spraying there wasn't much to see. The "stick" used silent electrostatic energy to evenly coat both sides of the leaves with microscopic droplets, invisible to the eye. And using high static voltages, it worked like lightening - quite literally.
Twenty years on many of those sprayers are still lying in those garages, and there are still millions starving in Africa for want of the technology that could make their land fertile.
This year has seen intense focus on Africa - the 20th anniversary of Band Aid, is also the 10th of the Rwandan genocide. The aids situation in the continent is out of control, and civil unrest is endemic.
In a flourish of publicity the Prime Minister set up his Africa Commission to produce the “definitive” report on Africa for next years’ "unique coincidence" of the British presidency of the EU and G8 on the timely twentieth anniversary of the Live Aid event.
But the report's vague categories: "the economy", "natural resources", "investing in people", "governance", "peace and security", and "culture", (notably there was no category for science and technology) along with the absence of any intended follow-up plan gave rise to concerns that the Commission might just end up as a talking shop. If the report did, as hoped, come up with a grand vision comparable to 1980’s Brandt report, the fear was that it would be one without teeth – a sheaf of paper without backing and therefore the means to make specific projects a reality.
The Electrodyn project, like many other technological initiatives over the last twenty years, fell out of use not because it failed to prove it could work. It was dropped partly due to internal mismanagement. However, equally significantly, it would have probably been adopted across the continent if there had existed an independent organisation that could coordinate industry with aid agencies with governments.
Back in 1984 the team presenting to the then Prime Minister’s husband were full of enthusiasm and high expectation. The Electrodyn spray system, as they saw it, could create a small revolution in African smallholder agriculture, which then like now was commonly considered to be "Africa's pathway out of poverty".
Africa needs all the help it can get from modern agricultural technology, to overcome what is frequently just a bad hand dealt by nature.
In the insect ridden, infertile, dry and cracked areas of the sub-Saharan region for farming to be efficient, then crop spraying is widely considered to be necessary. Studies show crops that aren't sprayed typically fail by 30-50%. Crops, which have been bred to be drought resistant – the ones that can mean the difference between famine and harvest – can fail by as much as 75%.
Last year, in Uganda, when the supply lorries failed to arrive for a community of farmers, they got so desperate that they resorted to spraying animal urine on their crops.
But even when the supplies do arrive, although it brings relief it usually also brings backbreaking and dangerous work.
Common sense advocates that the technology that African farmers use should ideally be as easy, simple and reliable as the oxen that pull their carts.
But it isn’t.
The so-called knapsack sprayer is just a giant version of the sprayers we use on our roses, but strapped to the back and with a lever instead of a gun. It needs 15 litres of water often in areas where the nearest water is miles away. This 30 kg pack on the farmers back and digging in to his shoulders just covers a tenth of a hectare. Where possible farmers send their children out at dawn with oxcarts, to fill steel drums with the water from distant holes, and before you know it they are dry again.
More often than not the farmers, many of whom have next to no technical education will deliberately fail to dilute properly to spare some of the grueling work and render the exercise largely useless.
The existing alternative is what they call “spinning disc sprayer”. A chemical concentrate is gravity fed from a reservoir bottle to a rotating disc, and then drifts with the wind, hopefully over the crop. It may be light, but it gets through batteries like a child's toy and is just as breakable.
Worse, it can be dangerous and even lethal. A change in the wind can take the spray anywhere, and the farmer has to mess around with bottles of deadly chemicals. The World Resources Institute estimates that fifteen thousand Africans die each year from sprayer related accidents and hundreds of thousands are injured [check}.
In 1984 and 1985 Electrodyn was the big story in agriculture circles. It won green awards, was heralded as the new dawn of third world farming in the New Scientist, appeared on Tomorrow's world, and was put on permanent exhibition in the London Science Museum.It also was started on pre-sale trials in half a dozen sub-Saharan countries.
Farmers used to back-breaking, water-dependent hand sprayers, or fragile battery intensive machines were asked to try a cheap 2.5 kg, pole, with batteries that lasted a year and no moving parts to break.
It could cover over a hectare and a half in one go and achieved, in the first year of trials, an increase of cotton in Tanzania of up to 100 per cent and in Nigeria, drought resistant pest afflicted Cowpea was for the first time successfully grown, with a ten fold increase on the existing forms.
The farmers went wild for it. When it was launched in Zambia, Elijah, a gray haired farmer with shoulders scarred from years of using a knapsack sprayer said:
"Do you see these weals. Twenty years of using a knapsack sprayer did that. With the "Electrodyn" I won't get weals. I call it the gentleman's sprayer. It has made me feel like a gentleman."
Throughout the eighties managers from Surrey flew off to such places as Ougadougou, or Dar Es Salaam to monitor the progress which continued to be as positive as in the initial year of sale. And then suddenly in the nineties Zeneca, the agrochemical part of ICI which had broken away stopped the project, which had neither failed nor been superseded by other advances in technology.
The nineties showed no great improvement in sustainable food production in Africa. Countries such as Ethiopia remained largely dependent on aid hand-outs. Irrigation and infrastructure programmes failed to materialize, and rains came and went.
Last year pictures of African children with death in their eyes became increasing common on collection tins as aid agencies once again talked of another humanitarian disaster. They said that rains again had been failing and there were mass exoduses overland to aid depots.
Like the rains, the resources for sustainable agriculture have failed to arrive year after year.
Even though rains eventually arrived last year bringing higher than expected harvests, 24 countries are still however facing food emergencies, and 200 million are chronically malnourished. Even in a good year the cumulative effect of successive years of drought, vulnerability to pests, and political and infrastructure problems leaves a dismal situation.
Last October Dr. Tom Conway, of the Rockerfeller Institute, told the US House of Representatives.
"The fact is that Africa is not currently growing enough food. There are many, many reasons for this, but one important cause is simply that agricultural productivity in Africa is just too low. Indeed, the average African farmer's crop yields are about the same as those enjoyed by some farmers during the Roman Empire".
But African governments are becoming more aware of the need for reform. In 2002 the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) was set up. Last December Nigeria's President Olusegan Obasanjo told the NEPAD that his fellow leaders must find a "sustainable solution", so, "agriculture will provide the engine for growth in Africa", adding, "To succeed, Africa's efforts to boost agricultural output must also rely on greater use of science and technology,
Across Western Africa departments for biotechnology are being set up, and greenhouses are being erected with the controlled conditions necessary to cross breed plants for drought resistance. Last year the buzz was all about the miracle rice “Nerica”, or the New Rice for Africa. Amongst other things it promised increased pest resistance, but signs are that it is less resistant than hoped for. The simple truth is that when food is scarce, insects have an unfair start at the table.
Recent initiatives such as the African Agriculture Technology Foundation have as their rationale the harnessing of existing and potential solutions, “appropriate technologies”. But they have their work cut out simply accessing simple technology, and creating deals and fair licenses for their use.
Thousands of miles over in America, eminent scientists are crying out for the development of technology to feed the world.
Over in Europe machines like the Electrodyn are languishing in people’s garages.
Back in the 80’s it is probable that there were those within ICI who were more than aware of the conflict of interest of a chemical company manufacturing a chemical saving machine. But if there were they never overtly interfered with the project. The biggest problem came from Africa itself.
Of the counties where Electrodyn was test marketed, Nigeria, Zambia, Tanzania, Angola and Mozambique none were stable. Mozambique and Angola started off as stable, but no sooner had sales begun than the countries broke out in bloody civil war.
Nigeria was being run by what amounted to a dictatorships. The leaders drove bullet-proof Range Rovers, whilst their people could barely afford an ox.
Up to 1986 Tanzania was being governed by something altogether more bizarre. Julius Nyerere was conducting a socialist experiment with the help of China. He adopted a policy of so-called compulsory "villagisation" of the entire rural population, the small-holder agricultural community, and amalgamated all their small-holdings into communally owned farms. When he was finally deposed, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was brought in. The rescue package was draconian, including currency devaluation amongst various other measures to slowly and painfully turn the country back into a free market economy.
Similarly, Zambia was under the crypto-Marxist regime of Kenneth Kaunda, who by the mid 80's had bankrupted the country and also had to turn to the IMF. It was a great irony that Kaunda, appeared on Zambian television eulogising about the Electrodyn, and his photograph and endorsement appeared in publicity packs across the continent. The flattery of having a camera on him during a 1988 publicity push may have appealed to his vanity but his notoriously corrupt government never did anything for this machine, or any other technology that could have helped the people. It was widely believed that you couldn't get a government minister to do anything new without a bribe.
Throughout the 80’s ICI may have been Britain's greatest industrial economic force, but the Electrodyn project was entirely in the hands of a handful of middle-aged men who played cricket at weekends, and liked to play by the rules.
According to economist Margi Bryant, neither did such managers they particularly know how to work alongside the aid agencies, who in some years would buy as much as 80 per cent of the agrochemicals used.
The chemical companies feared that aid agencies would get in the way of a proper market. And the aid agencies and governments that they were helping in turn were suspicious of accepting anything that looked like a monopoly. And the Electrodyn looked exactly like that. It came with a closed sealed non-refillable "bozzle" (bottle and nozzle), which meant that the preformulated chemicals, even generic chemicals could only be bought from ICI.
The £15 machines might have been sold with a guarantee but the system certainly didn't come with a guarantee that once a country had become dependent on them they were not suddenly going to be sprung with a massive hike in prices.
And added to the chaos in Africa, and difficulties with the aid agencies, priorities in 1993 ICI were turned upside down when it "demerged" its agriculture and pharmaceuticals business. These became a new company, Zeneca, with its new business models, and economic priorities. And that was the end of the project.
Since then barely a month has gone by without one member of the former Electrodyn team or other receiving a query from someone in Africa wanting to know who has the distribution rights, or what has happened to the machine, or simply where you could get hold of one.
In 1997 a team of scientists from Belgium went over to Togo under the banner of the UN. The aim was to see if the Electrodyn crop sprayers could also be used to control pests on cattle. The "sticks" were a decade old. After a scorching summer conducting field trials the trip was deemed a storming success..
For some farmers their cattle are the most useful possessions they will ever have. Many live in small huts with no water, electricity or sanitation. They depend on the cattle. They drink the milk, they use the manure for fertilizer and the animals prepare the land. When the cattle die they provide meat and leather. But ticks and flies are also dependent on the cattle for their wellbeing, and spread diseases that wipe out the herds of entire villages.
The presence of the tsetse fly on cattle increases the chance of people catching sleeping sickness which according to the WHO affects 400,000 people in Africa a year killing a quarter of them.
In 1998 a team of scientists from Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, got hold of some Electrodyns and experimented with spraying Cotton and Cowpea, in adjacent rows. They found that it provided a successful way of cheaply protecting both crops and providing a cash crop at the same time as a subsistence diet, but were equally impressed how the machine could be used as easily by women and children in areas where the working population had been compromised by aids.
But such initiatives have little chance of being anything other than of academic interest without outside impetus.
However after 10 years of languishing in garages, one organization has come forward with the potential of resurrecting the Electrodyn, and it comes from an unlikely place.
Columbus Ohio in America’s Midwest, Columbus, Ohio is an improbable spot to find what is possibly the world’s biggest technology research agency. The residents have naturally conservative tendencies, and the area is a long way from the scientific centers of excellence on the east and west coasts.
Yet it is home to The Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio, which has an annual research budget of $ 2.7 billion, and close links to the federal government.
Having recently bought into spin-off technology from the Electrodyn project it is now the current world centre for electrostatic spraying.
Now that they have successfully applied the technology in its purist form to spray fine mists into the lungs for cancer treatment they have started developing a hand held sprayer, a scaled down Electrodyn, for the domestic garden market. It is a version of this that they intend to try to introduce in to Sub Saharan Africa.
With their size, charitable status and links to the US government they could make it work. But possibly it will get side tracked – prove too tricky without outside help, or just fall off the screen for no good reason, as before.
Now out of patent anyone can and maybe will make the machine, but the question remains right now, who exactly has the incentive to give Elijah back his “gentleman’s sprayer”?