Fall Armyworm has arrived in Kenya to stay, but while the government develops a long-term strategy, farmers need ready and accessible solutions now.
From a distance, Wycliffe Ngoda’s two acres of shiny green maize crops look healthy and lush. But the tell-tale holes in the leaves and debris on the stems give away an increasingly dangerous secret hidden in more and more maize fields across Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa. The rampant Fall Armyworm caterpillar is once again threatening harvests across the continent for a second year.
The pest, which arrived in Africa from the Americas in 2016, affected around 50,000 hectares of maize in Kenya alone last year, costing 25 per cent of the crop, according to government officials.
This year, the losses could be as high as 50 per cent, threatening Kenya’s food security and farmers’ economic security in a country where the average annual consumption of maize surpasses 100kg per person.
“This is one of the deadliest crop pests in the world,” said Dr B.M. Prasanna, director of the global maize programme at CGIAR’s International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), based in Nairobi. “It can have as many as six life cycles in a year and each female moth can lay as many as 1,500 to 2,000 eggs.
“There’s no single solution that will fight it in all the smallholder contexts. But we’re not starting from scratch.”
Government delegates and experts have recently travelled to Brazil to learn how Fall Armyworm is controlled in the Americas, including the use of pest-resistant varieties of maize.
Scientists at the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) have also found improved yields in controlled trials of transgenic crops as part of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) initiative.
But while the Kenyan government considers such developments as part of a long-term strategy to reduce the impact of Fall Armyworm, the pest continues to pose a threat in the short-term.
In their desperation to ward off the caterpillar, which can reach the size of a little finger, some farmers even resorted to mixing homemade pesticides.
“I came across Fall Armyworm last year,” said Mr Ngoda, 65, from Mbale, Vihiga county. “We were taken unaware. It’s something that had not occurred here before. The attack was very fast and furious.
“We started looking for local solutions. We took liquid detergents and mixed it with some ash. Eventually we succeeded in fighting it off but the damage was already done. I lost about 50 per cent of my crop, others lost 70 per cent.
“We were using local innovations but it was more like guesswork.”
This year, Mr Ngoda said he was better prepared thanks to training in detection and responsible pesticide use provided by the county government and NGOs such as Farm Input Promotions Africa (FIPs-Africa). He said he had applied pesticide to his crops once so far.
The advice included treating crops with pesticides in the morning or afternoon when the caterpillars are active, and spraying to the side to avoid direct contact with the product. FIPs-Africa also contracts specialist sprayers to help farmers safely apply the correct pesticide.
In the meantime, Kenya’s Pest Control Products Board (PCPB) has fast-tracked its approval process for products that can help tackle Fall Armyworm to help address the threat in the short-term. But the challenge in rural areas is ensuring the best advice and information reaches the smallholders.
CropLife Kenya organises popular county farmer training sessions every month and CABI has more than 120 PlantWise clinics across Kenya where smallholders can bring in samples of their damaged crop to get expert advice on the necessary remedy.
But more is needed to teach farmers how to live with a pest that is here to stay.
“I wish we had more people,” said Mr Ngoda. “Sometimes, farmers don’t seek solutions and expert advice. We need more surveillance and on farm visits.
“I’m normally guaranteed 40 bags minimum. Last year, I didn’t get 20. I thank God I have a small family and none of them are going to school, otherwise it would have been a total disaster.”