Fall Armyworm attack: Desperation pushes Kenya farmers to danger

Overall, 43 of 47 counties in Kenya reported the presence of FAW, indicating that about 80 per cent of Kenya’s crops-producing landmass was under invasion

By Maina Waruru
Published: Monday 11 March 2019

When news of Fall Armyworm (FAW) infestation in maize fields in western Kenya came to the fore in 2016, Catherine Wanjikua never thought that in a matter of months, she would be battling the pest in her quarter-of-an-acre maize field.

After all, the pest was wreaking havoc more than 500 kilometres away in Bungoma and Trans Nzoia counties of western Kenya. The only worm she usually encountered was the Maize Stock Borer — a pest she had learned to either tame or live with.

Wanjikua — a small land holding farmer from Central Kenya — noticed the pest eating off the maize crop leaves only after five months. It did not take her long to realise that the dreaded FAW or Spodoptera frugiperda had invaded her farm. She identified the worm by the description provided on television.

Like other farmers in Mathioya sub-county, Wanjikua decided to use pesticides, but these did not work, forcing the mother of two to try all kinds of concoctions, including mixtures of toxic leaves.

“It was getting serious, my plants were being stripped of leaves and common chemicals were not working, despite regular spraying,” she says.

One such concoction was a mix of Mexican Marigold leaves, tobacco, ashes and crushed pepper mixed in water. Her neighbours were no different — boiling all kinds of leaves, roots and tree barks in a bid to tame the pest.

The desperation was widespread across the country. It culminated in December 2017 when authorities at the County government of Embu hired and trained men to move across fields hunting and manually killing the caterpillars.

Curiously, the plan to physically eliminate the pest also drew in the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which partnered with the county government in what was said to be a 'pilot' project.

However, none of these methods matched the spread of the pest, and the assault on maize — Kenya’s staple crop — continued into the October-January crop harvesting period.

A small halt

According to Miltone Ayieko, director of Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development (TIAPD) — a policy research think-tank of Egerton University — the invasion of FAW only seems to have been halted by the unusually heavy rains in March 2018.

The rains, he says, seems to have broken the life cycle of the worm which usually attacks crops during its larvae stage, ravenously feeding on maize and other crops of the grass family.

“The FAW seems to have thrived better under the drought conditions of 2016-2017, which affected most the country. It does not seem to thrive as well after the long rains of 2018,” Ayieko told Down To Earth.

Overall, 43 of 47 counties in Kenya reported the presence of FAW, indicating that about 80 per cent of Kenya’s crops-producing landmass was under invasion, he added.

During this period, Kenya lost up to 20 per cent of its projected maize yields, an equivalent of 7.5 to 8 million bags of the grain in a country whose average annual harvest is 30-40 million bags, Ayieko added.

“The amount lost to the FAW in 2017 was enough to feed the country for a period of two months going by Kenya’s monthly consumption,” he said.

The pest has spread from central and southern parts of Africa towards East Africa, invading fields in Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda before reaching the western part of Kenya in 2016.

According to Ayieko, studies have shown that the worm is migratory in nature, lays as many as 500-1,000 eggs at once, and is more active at night while flying for distances up to 500 kilometres.

In the case of Africa, it seems to have invaded nearly all of the Sub-Saharan Africa avoiding the Sahara region, indicating a preference for tropical and sub-tropical conditions.

Threat to food security

The fact that FAW seemed to attack crops at any stage of growth meant it was a major threat to maize, and in turn a threat to the food security of many African countries — only comparable to the Lethal Maize Necrosis (MLN) disease.

“While there are no conclusive findings on some aspects of their behaviour, the worm seems to do thrive better when the rains are inadequate,” Ayieko said, adding that there is no scientific evidence so far to link the pest to climate change.

One major reason for the panic among farmers and authorities is the lack of information on the pest, worsened by poor extension services in Kenya. As a result, farmers resorted to using all sorts of chemicals and pesticides to fight the pest — some even harmful to the environment.

In the absence of appropriate pesticides, early warning systems and “sustainable” farming practices such as the Push and Pull technology, along with other biological control methods, could help control future invasions. Moth traps and FAW “pheromone lures” can also be used. But, more research aimed at advancing knowledge on the pest is needed.

Such techniques could also include leaving the land furrows at intervals to try and break the life cycle of the worm. “What is needed is a good early warning system plus heightened surveillance to ensure that accurate information is gathered and shared with farmers,” Ayieko says.

Stephen Mugo, principal scientist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Nairobi, says only the regions in north-eastern part of Kenya, neighbouring Somalia and Ethiopia — which do not grow maize — haven’t reported FAW.

The pest has a wide host range, attacking more than 80 plant species, with a major preference for maize. Its effects on the maize crop is evidenced by the reduction in production. “In 2017, FAW caused 24 per cent maize yield loss during the long rains, and during the short rains it caused 26 per cent losses. This increased to 32 per cent during the long rains in 2018,” said Mugo.

While this was the first time FAW was reported in Kenya, Mugo says that it’s just one out of a series of recent threats to food production in the country — coming soon after an outbreak of the MLN and the tomato pest, Tutaabsoluta.

“The Kenya and Sub-Saharan Africa climate will favour FAW to stay here for long as it can multiply all year-round in the absence of frost that kills it in temperate countries,” he adds.

Inter-cropping, or planting rows of beans alongside maize, can “confuse the fall armyworm” and lessen its destructiveness, says the CIMMYT scientist. Use of Genetically Modified (GM) maize seeds that enable plants to resist the worm’s aggression could also work, but this, he notes, would require government approval and regulation.

Mugo said that CIMMYT and partners have started breeding FAW-resistant maize varieties, and have developed an FAW guide for Africa, while another one is being prepared for Asia.

The Kenya government, through Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO), has also published a FAW control guide for farmers and extension staff.

“No studies in the country have been undertaken, therefore, the suggested management options are based on publications from other countries,” KALRO discloses.

It urges that national and local capacity for surveillance be strengthened, building of diagnostic skills, and training public and private extension service providers, seed inspectors, as well as agrochemical dealers.

Overall, Kenya lost 30 million Kenyan Shillings to FAW attacks in 2017 alone, according Ministry of Agriculture estimates. David Mwangi, head of plant protection services at the ministry, has been quoted in media reports saying that the pest is a major threat to the country’s food security.

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