Issue 11

Klaus Peter Radtke

Photos by Matthias Ziegler Words by Janek Schmidt

Dr Klaus Peter Radtke was looking for a meaningful challenge in his life when he heard about an intriguing tree in Mauritania. Now, almost 20 years later, he has learned a lot about farming in Africa and ­setbacks in development work–and laid the foundations for the launch of a new sustainable business in Germany.

NEEM

The neem tree originates from India, Pakistan and Myanmar and was brought to Africa in the nineteenth century, mainly because of its robustness: it copes well in dry weather and reaches a height of 25m with a spreading crown that retains its foliage all year round. This makes it one of the few shade-giving trees that tolerate drought. While its main use was to provide shade in parks and gardens and alongside roads, it has also been used to form windbreaks against desert storms and served in reforestation projects in the desert. However, another fascinating aspect is the variety of natural chemicals it produces, most of which have important medicinal properties. This aspect is indicated by its name in Swahili, one of Africa’s most important languages: it is called Muarubaini, which means the tree of forty cures. Its bark, leaves and seeds contain natural chemical compounds—some of which have not even been fully explored yetthat can be used for numerous treatments and purposes.

Dr Radtke, you lead a comfortable life as a pharmaceutical biochemist in the US-house, pool, wife, children and grandchildren. What drives you to visit Mauritania in West Africa to support people there?

 

K P

R

Well, it was a slow process involving a lot of coincidences—or perhaps miracles. It all started in 2004, when a friend of mine told me about a group of American businessmen who had been travelling to Mauritania to support non-profit organisations delivering food supplies and medical aid during a massive drought. One evening over dinner, a common friend asked me, Peter, would you be interested in getting involved in a project in Africa? I think they need a biochemist.

And that got you hooked?

 

K P

R

Not quite—but I was at a point in my life where I was susceptible to a proposition of that kind. I had just read the book Halftime: Moving from Success to Significance, which describes how successful people often start looking for meaning in mid-life

And that was the case for you?

 

K P

R

Yes. I had always loved doing research. That’s why I had worked as a post-doc at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, as Research Director at the department of medicine at Goethe University Frankfurt, and then permanently moved to North Carolina to help set up a research lab for Bayer HealthCare. But I also wanted to use my expertise in a deeper way that would allow me to make a more direct impact on other people’s lives.

And the project in Mauritania seemed like a good opportunity?

 

K P

R

At that time it wasn’t even a project yet, it was more like an idea: Some of the people who had been helping to provide food supplies and medical aid in Mauritania were entrepreneurs. So after the drought had subsided, they were keen to develop local projects that could provide longer-term solutions. One of them was a man named Bill Stoffregen, who owned a nursery for plants and trees in the US and knew about plants. While in Mauritania, he had noticed trees that were growing in the desert, at 45 degrees Celsius, without any irrigation. Curious about those survival skills, he found out that they were neem trees, which have intrigued people for centuries.

What did Bill Stoffregen plan to do with the neem trees?

 

K P

R

Bill simply suggested, Could we help plant trees, maybe even reforest a certain area, while providing an income to locals who could then harvest the seeds, leaves or bark to make use of their chemicals? But for that, they needed a biochemist …

… which is where you came into play.

 

K P

R

Yes, but even though I had now become friends with Bill, I was still sceptical. As a scientist, the worst thing that can happen to you is to lose your reputation. So you don’t want to get involved in anything that sounds weird. Plus, my background had been in drugs for blood coagulation, fibrinolysis and immunology—in other words, questions about what makes blood clots form and dissolve. But I had no idea about plants or Africa, ­neither did I speak any French or ­Arabic, which is important in Mauritania.

But your quest for significance was stronger than your fear of something weird …?

 

K P

R

I just wanted to make sure those stories about the miraculous neem tree weren’t simply weird and nothing more. Although Google wasn’t yet available at the time, my job at Bayer gave me access to medical databases and medical journals. There I found two interesting things. First, there was a surprisingly large amount of research on neem trees. And second, one name kept coming up as a ­scientific authority on the neem tree—a professor by the name of Heinrich Schmutterer.

A well-travelled entomologist …

 

K P

R

That’s right. He had spent decades studying biological ways to control pests, focusing on the chemicals produced by the neem tree. And by a funny coincidence, he taught at the University of Giessen …

Your own hometown …

 

K P

R

Indeed! So, before my next trip to Europe to attend a medical conference, I wrote him to ask if we could meet up. He was very open, and it was encouraging to talk with him; he convinced me that there was a solid scientific basis for the uses of neem. We also became friends, so now, every time I go to Giessen to visit my parents, I also go to see him.

What did he tell you about neem?

 

K P

R

The tree uses what you could call biochemical warfare at its finest. To protect itself against micro-organisms—the same ­fungi and bacteria that harm us humans—it uses highly specific biomolecules. The response is very specific. For example, the chemicals repel or inhibit locusts, but not bees, which the tree needs for its pollination. It almost seems like the neem tree has its own immune system.

Freshly harvested neem leaves
are a product of teamwork at
the neem orchard.

 

A local employee proudly shows

his full bucket of neem leaves.

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