The yellow center of the Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium contains one of the world’s great natural insecticides, that as well as being totally harmless to plants, humans, and animals, supports the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of rural Kenyans who supply much of the world’s pyrethrum, the principal chemical in the flower.
Pyrethrum is becoming a major tool in the fight against mosquito-borne illnesses, as the toxin attacks the central nervous system of the insect, causing it to spasm around and drop still over a 30-second period. It’s also excellent natural crop protection, not only for gardens and crops but livestock, offering them relief from biting ticks and flies.
“Pyrethrin is the most important insecticide in the world,” says Joel Maina Kibett, chief agriculture officer of Nakuru County in Kenya. “It is natural, organic, and it has no environmental effects. And it is user-friendly.”
During the 1970s and ’80s, Kenya grew nearly all the pyrethrum in the world decades after the arrival of the chrysanthemum species from Japan along with British colonizers. It became such an economic driver that it was placed in the Kenyan coat of arms following independence.
After the rise of industrial agriculture and cheaper pyrethrum produced elsewhere, the entire pyrethrum farming industry in Kenya collapsed. The pyrethrum state monopoly only finished paying off debts to growers in 2018, a year after Kenya liberalized the market, encouraging competition, production, and innovation.
In Kibett’s Nakuru County, 2017 saw 15,703 farming households receive C. cinerariifolium seedlings from the county government and half a dozen private companies. National Geographic reports that these are already generating income for more than 100,000 rural Kenyans.
“In total, we have given out 23.3 million seedlings since we started the revival of the sector,” Kibett told Nat Geo in a special feature on pyrethrum. “Most of us became what we are because of that flower. We remember seeing beautiful landscapes covered with white sheets of flowers. We have done it before, and the results were very good. And we have the knowledge. We have the existing infrastructure.”
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