Deadly pest has invaded breadbasket regions with disastrous effects for farmers. Experts advise on how to deal with them
The fall armyworm has invaded Kenya’s breadbasket regions in the last two seasons and has contributed to a near 20 per cent fall in maize production, costing farmers dearly.
This season, the pests are already causing havoc not just in the North Rift and western Kenya maize belt but also in eastern Kenya counties like Meru and Machakos.
How should the country respond to this danger?
Integrated pest management is the best way to tackle the risk posed by the ravenous fall armyworm, experts say.
Awareness campaigns, scientific innovation, quick and coordinated action as well as a multi-institutional collaboration will be required to tackle the fall armyworm menace. This was the message to delegates at a consultative meeting on the pest held in Nairobi recently.
The armyworm, which attacks more than 80 different plant species, including grass and maize, a staple food in East Africa, is a threat to regional food security.
“The truly frightening risk of the fall armyworm to food security in Africa must be recognised and tackled with a holistic integrated pest management programme,” says Dr Boddupalli Prassana, the director of the Global Maize Programme at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre.
The fall armyworm – Spodoptera frugiperda – has its origin in the Americas, but was first reported in Africa in Nigeria.
It then appeared across West and Central Africa, before extensively invading farms in southern Africa last year.
The pest can lay up to 1,000 eggs during its lifetime and produce multiple generations quickly. The larva is spread mainly through wind dispersal on host plants from the eggs laid. It can cause crop losses of up to 73 per cent and becomes difficult to control with pesticides in its advanced larval stage.
The worm has invaded farms in the bread basket counties of Baringo, Bungoma, Busia, Kakamega, Kericho, Nakuru, Nandi, Narok, Siaya and Uasin Gishu. It has attacked some 11,000 to 15,000 hectares mostly under maize.
Researchers at the University of Nairobi have also reported fall armyworm maize damage in Machakos County.
“We cannot eliminate the pest. Now that it is here to stay, we can only support farmers to manage their crops,” Dr Prassana told a stakeholder consultative meeting in Nairobi.
Dr Roger Day, the sanitary and phytosanitary coordinator at the Nairobi-based Centre for Agricultural and Biosciences International (CABI), says the armyworm invasion could cost Africa a Sh300 billion loss in the coming year.
The scientists also fear that the pest could become endemic across the continent. Prof Kenneth Wilson of Britain’s Lancaster University, who has extensive experience working on the African armyworm, predicts that it could spread to the Middle East and eventually Europe.
The moth has been known to fly distances of up to 1,600 kilometres in 30 hours.
The meeting noted that Brazil, a tropical country, has battled the pest in the past, and could be a useful benchmark for understanding how to manage it in Africa, which does not have the natural control measure of freezing temperatures.
Mr Clement Muyesu, an assistant director in charge of food crops at the Ministry of Agriculture, says: “We still don’t understand it very well and are learning from experts and countries where there have been infestations. We are hopeful that we will combat it.”
Mr Muyesu says the government has committed an additional Sh320 million to fighting the worm. “The fall armyworm is bigger than the African armyworm, and behaves like the stalkborer. It burrows into stems and hence, not easily reachable by some pesticides.”
Mr Mathews Matimelo, the principal agriculture research officer in Zambia, who has done extensive research on the impact of the fall armyworm in southern Africa, says botanical control measures are vital.
According to Mr Matimelo, laboratory tests have indicated that plants like ‘neem’ are effective in controlling the worm.
Use of bio-pesticides is another option to explore. “Relying only on pesticides is not an option, if we have to eradicate the army worm,” he adds.
Tackling the armyworm, Dr Prassana explains, would also require developing transgenic materials such as Bt maize, which are drought resistant.
Research institutions will mobilise vast germ plasm resources and modern breeding tools to speed up the development of transgenic materials resistant to the worm.
A combination of methods must be used to curb the spread and damage by the pest. “The first step is an effective integrated pest management strategy to survey and monitor pest movements, assess yield loss levels and compile data using remote sensing equipment,” says Mr Gabriel Rugalema, FAO’s country representative in Kenya.
The Agriculture ministry has formed a committee to perform several tasks, including creating awareness on the pest and its characteristics.
Ms Candace Buzzard, the deputy mission director at the US Agency for International Development (USAid) in Kenya and East Africa, says: “We are building resilience to increase agricultural productivity and regional coordination.”
Though no research has been undertaken in the country to control the fall armyworm (FAW), most experts agree that the best way to tackle the dreadful menace is through integrated pest management (IPM).
They also suggest that to win the war against FAW, there is an urgent need to collaborate with national research partners.
Other research and development institutions in Africa must also work together to come up with a long lasting solution. There is a need to strengthen national and county capacity in surveillance, diagnostic skills and management of FAW by training public-private extension service providers, seed inspectors, agrochemical dealers, spraying teams and farmers.
A strong communication network on the pest must also be developed to disseminate information.
An IPM tool has to be developed to provide a sustainable solution. IPM is an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices.
It is not a single pest control method, but a combination of cultural, biological and biopesticide control measures.
These include developing host plant resistance, use of low cost chemicals, protective clothing and spraying equipment; and developing drought and pest-resistant hybrid crops. Others are identification of predatory insects, pheromone traps to lure moths to target and destroy eggs and larvae as well as use of bio-pesticides from natural distribution by birds or animals.