NAIROBI — After more than a year of wreaking havoc across western and southern Africa, fall armyworms have now been reported in most countries in eastern Africa, including Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Burundi.
Timothy Mbaya is a 25-year-old farmer from western Kenya. He says 75 percent of his maize crop was destroyed by a fall armyworm infestation in April.
“There’s nothing we could do, because the worms were eating indiscriminately in patches, in groups, so I had to do away with the crops and seek alternative crops to plant. So I chose some cassavas to make good use of this rainy season so I don’t come out empty-handed.”
The vice president for program development at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Joe DeVries, notes that fall armyworms were first reported in Nigeria in January 2016, and have spread rapidly, landing in Kenya this past March.
“We’re talking about a pest that literally just arrived this year in this region and is already causing major concern among farmers, partly because they’ve never seen it before and don’t know how to control it, and partly because of the damage that’s already occurred in their farms,” said DeVries.
Endemic to the Americas, fall armyworms can fly long distances, and females can lay up to 1,000 eggs at a time, according to scientists. They proliferate in tropical climates, making Africa a choice destination; however, experts are still unclear as to how the pests got here in the first place.
Wilson Ronno, head of the crop production unit at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization office for Kenya, says the pests are exacerbating the effects of severe drought and rising food prices in East Africa. He gives this example from Kenya.
“The price of food, the maize especially, has increased by about 90 percent over the long-term average, in the last few months. Now, and this is compounded by the drought, the 90 percent increase is because of the drought. Now, with the coming pests, you can imagine the costs rising, rises in cost of food,” said Ronno. “Now, the inflation, as a result of these increases in food prices, inflation has risen from 5 percent last year in April to now, about 12 percent in April 2017.”
Ronno argues that a broader approach is necessary because fall armyworms don’t recognize state lines.
“It’s not going to be very useful for Kenya alone to control the pest, because it flies 100 kilometers per day, so it doesn’t know where is Uganda, where is Tanzania,” said Ronno. “Europe and Asia are not immune because these pests can move up north to Europe, to the Mediterranean countries, can move to Asia, through the Middle East and so on.”
Although the fall armyworm is known to attack more than 80 plant species, in East Africa, it prefers maize, a crucial staple and cash crop.
Experts say they cannot yet eliminate the pests here, but are promoting short-term solutions as they explore options like identifying predatory insects and developing host plant resistance.
Ronno says it is estimated that more than 400,000 hectares in East Africa have already been affected, adding that some estimates project up to a $4 billion loss of African maize, if no interventions are taken.