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Popularising neem as an insecticide

Socio-economic factors influence farmers' use of neem

by Carsten Hellpap and Wilfried Leupolz

The neem tree (Azardirachta indica) originally native to southeast and southern Asia has been introduced to almost all tropical and subtropical regions worldwide. Considering the neem's high potential as a natural insecticide, GTZ has supported several projects to popularize the use of neem for pest control in different countries such as the Dominican Republic, Ecuador (cf "gate" 4/90, pp 25-27), Niger, Togo, Benin, Senegal, Thailand and Sri Lanka.

The projects generally targeted farmers poor in resources, as they are most needy of support in improving their production techniques.

Neem offers a particularly promising and appropriate plant protection method for this group as it requires no financial inputs, causes no health hazards and is ecologically sound.

Consequently, project activities concentrated on homemade neem products such as neem-seed water extract and neem oil and put only minor emphasis on industrially-produced extracts which are too expensive. Extension work consisted of personal advice to pilot farmers, talks to farmer groups, leaflets, posters and demonstration plots.

Slow dissemination

The major results of the project efforts have been the planting of hundreds of thousands of neem trees in rural areas, a tremendous increase In research and development activities on neem worldwide and the introduction of neem at farm level. In all project countries there are now about 50 to 500 farmers regularly applying neem preparations as insecticide. They are the focus for the dissemination of neem technology. However, neem is not likely to become a common pest control method for most farmers in these countries in the near future as disseminating neem technology among farmers is a slow process.

When analysing the reasons for the slow adoption the following basic factors should be examined, as they determine to a large degree the prospects for the sustainable use of home-made neem insecticides:

· availability and cost of raw materials,
· quality and effectiveness of the preparation, application rate of the raw material,
· requirements of labour, technology, capital, energy and know-how and
· access to and attitude towards synthetic pesticides.

In many sub-tropical/semiarid countries of Africa and Asia, neem trees are in abundant supply, but they are relatively scarce in Latin America. Neem grows primarily in dry regions and is often not found in the more humid vegetable-growing areas which are specially suitable for neem insecticide applications. Increased use of neem is only possible, therefore, if a structure for marketing neem raw materials already exists. This precondition is often not fulfilled or neem commercialisation is still in its initial stages.

Cost of the raw material varies

Neem seeds are far more expensive in Latin America than in Asia and Africa due to the different harvest methods used. In Africa and most Asian countries, birds and fruit bats feed on the fruit of the neem trees and the already depulped neem seeds can be collected from under the trees. In almost all Latin American countries, in contrast, seeds are not collected off the ground but gathered from the tree or pulled off the branches being cut. This method gives better quality seeds but is also more costly.

Even in Latin America home-made aqueous extracts of neem seeds bought directly from the picker (1 kg seed = 0.9 US$) are cheaper than synthetic insecticides. But if seeds have to be bought from traders (1 kg seed = 2 US$), the cost of the neem seed water extract becomes comparable to that of more expensive synthetic insecticides.

Active ingredients

The profitability and effectiveness of home-made neem products depend on the content of active ingredients in the raw material. Most important hereby is the triterpenoid Azadirachtin. The content of this ingredient in the seeds can vary between 0.1 and 0.5% even in seeds from the same plantation. It is not yet known which factors are decisive for the Azadirachtin concentration. varieties with exceptionally high active ingredient content have not been identified.

Nor are there any conclusive results of the effect of climatic factors and soil conditions. Another problem is the handling of the seeds. If not dried and stored properly they can easily turn mouldy, leading to a degradation of the active compounds and consequently to a drop in efficiency. To compensate for this, the farmer would have to apply higher amounts of the rotten seeds.

Technologically simple, but labour intensive

Despite the difficulties in obtaining high-quality raw materials, the efficiency of neem at farm level does not seem to be a general problem. According to an opinion poll among 124 farmers in Nicaragua, 74 % consider neem to be effective or very effective for controlling pests.

Home-made neem products can be prepared using simple technology not requiring any capital or energy. However, collecting and processing of neem seeds are labour intensive. An African farmer spends approximately 32 hours on these activities for a 1ha crop. His Latin American colleague needs even more time as fruit harvesting and processing are more labour intensive.

The neem harvest may compete for time with other important agricultural activities so that the farmer has to invest leisure time for the neem harvest. Many farmers are not able or willing to spend such an amount of time on their neem insecticide and prefer cheap synthetic insecticides or do not control their pests at all. They will only use neem if preprocessed or finished neem products are available at low prices.

Successful use of homemade products demands planning abilities and knowledge on the specific characteristics of neem. The neem seed harvest does not usually coincide with its use as insecticide. Farmers must therefore estimate in advance how much of raw material they require. Wrong calculations may cause a lot of work in vain or mean not having enough to sufficiently protect their crop.

Farmers have to know how to handle the seed so that it does not deteriorate. Also, neem differs from most other insecticides since it is not a contact poison. The active ingredients generally have to be ingested by the pest. Neem is only effective if the aqueous extract or the oil preparation completely cover the plants by thorough spraying. Neem has no knock-down effect. It kills insects slowly in several stages.

Farmers should know that neem is not effective against several sucking insect species. Considering these characteristics, neem is not a very simple pest control method. Many farmers will not obtain the expected results when applying neem for the first time. Training from extension officers and neem experts is expedient to avoid major failures.

Competition with synthetic pesticides

In conventional agriculture, neem preparations compete with other plant protection methods, especially synthetic insecticides. So acceptance of neem products depends heavily on the price policy for imported agricultural inputs. When synthetic pesticides are sold at low, subsidised prices, neem insecticides have barely a chance of being successful on the market.

The attitudes to use of neem are influenced by sociocultural factors such as values, norms and models for a better life and agricultural production in society. So neem will be more easily accepted in regions where farmers:

· have no strong negative attitude towards additional manual work,

· are aware of health and environmental problems of synthetic pesticides,

· are educated in school and have received additional training in integrated and ecological pest management,

· consider neem as a valuable natural resource not only as an insecticide but also as a source of medical preparations or cosmetic products.

The projects address farmers' attitudes

There is a correlation between economic aspects, socio-cultural constraints and acceptance of neem. Farmers who have a more disinterested attitude towards neem for socio-cultural reasons will only accept it if the economic benefit is high. The dissemination of neem is easier if the sociocultural constraints are low. In this case the economical advantage of the neem application can also be lower.

Projects therefore often aim at changing the socio-cultural conditions to facilitate the introduction of neem by, for example, increasing the awareness about the harmful effects of synthetic pesticides or training farmers in ecological pest control. Experiences to date show that for such a project strategy to be successful, it is not enough to work with pilot farmers alone, for the attitude of farmers towards new technologies is strongly influenced by the community they live in.

If farmers feel isolated and not supported by their families and by neighbors when applying neem they will hardly continue to use this method after the project finishes. Extension work on neem should always include the farmers' community too.

A most promising project strategy is to focus activities on regions where social cultural constraints are low and on crops or production systems in which neem applications have a clear economic advantage compared to other plant protection methods.


In the medium and long run it can be expected that socio-cultural and economic obstacles to neem use will diminish worldwide as:

· more and more cheap but highly toxic synthetic pesticides are taken from the market,

· farmers become increasingly aware about the health and environmental hazards of synthetic pesticides,

· the demand for pesticide free agricultural products grows, while contaminated products are less accepted by consumers,

· subsidies for synthetic pesticides decrease,

· farmers' knowledge about pest control improves and

· the availability of commercial neem products at reasonable prices increases.

The potential of neem will continue to be underutilised for several years until it can establish itself a common plant protection method in a more ecologically oriented agricultural production system.

Further information: Dr. Carsten Hellpap Information and Advisory Service on Appropriate Technology (ISAT)
Deutsche Gesellschaft fhnische Zusammenarbeit GmbH
P.O.B. 5180
D 65726 Eschborn Germany
Tel.: ++ 49 6196-79-3188
Fax.: ++49 6196-79-7352

Dr. Wilfried Leupolz Finkhof
St. Ulrich Str. 1
D 88410 Arnach
Tel.: ++49-7564-931730
Fax.: ++49-7564-931712