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Kenyan smallholders in 42 counties are grappling with tackling the fall armyworm threat, writes Gilbert Nakweya.    

The onset of the long rain season (March-June) in Kenya usually brings hope, especially to rural smallholder farmers who prepare their lands for planting crops such as maize, beans and vegetables.

But for Rosemary Alusa, a 46-year-old small-scale maize farmer from Kakamega County in Kenya, these rains now worry her.

Her fear was how to deal with a ‘strange’ worm that attacked her maize field last year and caused her over 40 per cent loss. “Two months after planting, I noticed the worms in parts of my maize field, confirming my fear,” Alusa tells SciDev.Net.

She purchased several pesticides from nearby agrovets in her quest to fight the worm. “These chemicals could work but after a few days become ineffective,” Alusa says.

Since fall armyworm was reported in Kenya during the long farming season in March last year, maize farmers such as Alusa have been grappling with the fight against the crop- devastating worm and the country is still working on adopting and registering effective pesticides to help control the pest.

The pest has spread to many parts of maize growing areas as the crop is the main host of the pest. The Government of Kenya estimates that over 50 per cent losses in maize yields could be realised this year as a result of the rapid spread of the pest, says David Mwangi, the head of plant protection services at Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries.

Counting losses

Farmers are already counting losses since last year as the pest spreads rapidly across their maize fields.

Alusa says the losses she incurred last year forced her to transfer two of her eight children from a private primary school- where high quality education is offered - to a public school where the number of pupils overwhelm teachers and facilities available as learning is free.

“This is a new pest that spreads rapidly, making it a challenge to manage.”

Wycliffe Ngoda, Vihiga County, Kenya

“Maize is our main food and commercial crop,” she notes, adding that she lost about  US$400, which could have helped her pay school fees for her children and purchase other basic needs such as clothes.

In April this year, during a media visit to farmers in western Kenya funded by CropLife International with support from the Agrochemicals Association of Kenya (AAK), the Kenya-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CYMMIT), Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI, the parent organisation of SciDev.Net)and others, many smallholders narrated how the pest is wreaking havoc on their farms.

“This is a new pest that spreads rapidly, making it a challenge to manage,” says Wycliffe Ngoda, a 60-year-old smallholder in Vihiga County.

Ngoda, who has six children, said that he first detected the pest last year and realised it was not the stem borer as he had thought because it could resist chemicals.

According to Boddupalli Prasana, the director of CYMMIT’s global maize program, the pest which is present in 40 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa could cause maize yield losses of about 8.3 to 20.6 million metric tonnes a year in Eastern and Southern Africa. The value of these losses, he adds, is estimated at between US$2.48 billion and US$6.19 billion a year.

 “My neighbours also started complaining of the pest,” explains Ngoda, adding that they resorted to using ash solutions and detergents as purchasing the chemicals was becoming costly.   “My projects of constructing rental houses have stalled as my main income is from maize.”

As a result of the reduction in yields last year, the price of a kilogram of maize rose from US$ 0.3 to US$ 1.2, which cannot be afforded by majority of the rural poor.

“Maize is the staple food crop here and without which people suffer,” laments Beverlyn Erusa, a 42-year-old smallholder from Vihiga County.

Costly, ineffective pesticides

Erusa asks for more education of smallholder farmers as the pest had threatened food security in the area.  Even the use of the pesticides to tackle the pest appears not to be adequately resolving the problem.

Peter Machanja, a smallholder farmer from Kakamega County, tells SciDev.Net, “We are desperate because some of the pesticides we buy from agrovets are not working and the pest is becoming resistant to the pesticides.”

Although the chemicals keep away the pests, Machanja says that smallholders have the challenge of getting the correct dosage, with large quantities burning the maize crop.

According to scientists from the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation, the CYMMIT and the CABI, fall armyworm is emerging as a big threat to food security in Africa.

Prasana says that the invasive pest could feed on over 80 crops including rice, sorghum, and cotton. He explains that fall armyworm is an invasive species with roots from the Americas and spreads rapidly due to high multiplication rate and can fly over 500 kilometres.

Patrick Amuyunzu, the chairperson of the board members responsible for managing the AAK, identifies challenges with using pesticides to help smallholders tackle the menace.

“One of the biggest challenges we have is that agrovets are mainly interested in selling and not advising farmers on how to use the pesticides.”

Patrick Amuyunzu, Agrochemicals Association of Kenya

“One of the biggest challenges we have is that agrovets are mainly interested in selling and not advising farmers on how to use the pesticides, even considering the side effects it could have on their health,” Amuyunzu says.

“Some of these chemicals may be hazardous and ineffective,” adds Emmanuel Okogbenin, director of technical operations from the AATF, Kenya.

Amuyunzu tells SciDev.Net that there is a need for educating smallholders on how to identify the pest and effectively use chemicals to help manage it.

“This is a deadly pest that attacks maize at all stages right from germination,” adds Margaret Mulaa, a senior research scientist at CABI. Mulaa adds that smallholders need to be sensitised to plant early and practice crop rotation as this could help control the pest.

According to Peter Opiyo, chief executive officer of the Kenya’s Pest Control Products Board, the board has recommended pesticides used in South Africa to be adopted, adding that 42 counties had reported fall armyworm in Kenya.

Opiyo says that the board has issued 37 efficacy trial permits on pesticides from South Africa.  “We shall fast-track the registration process because this is an important staple crop that fosters food security in Kenya,” notes Opiyo.

He also says that 92 fall armyworm specialist extension officers and 1,300 field extension workers have been trained to be engaged by farmers to help in spraying maize fields at a low cost to help minimise some of the health concerns arising.

Lack of coordination

Johnstone Imbira, Kakamega County’s director of agriculture, says that another key challenge to controlling fall armyworm is the lack of coordination between the national and county governments in terms of intervention.

This, he says, gives the pest ample time to multiply and spread. Using chemicals, he adds, is not the best solution but is one of the quickest interventions that could help farmers restore their crops. Imbira urges smallholders to increase surveillance and monitoring of their maize fields in order to help control the pest by raising alarm early.

Okogbenin tells SciDev.Net that that the adoption of genetically engineered (Bt) maize could help control fall armyworm as it has proved to be resistant to the pest.

According to Sylveter Oikeh, the project manager, Water Efficient Maize for Africa, African countries need political goodwill to get smallholders to adopt Bt maize, citing South Africa.

But David Mwangi, the head of plant protection services at Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture Livestock and Fisheries, says that unlike last year when many smallholders were unaware of the pest, leading to its rapid spread and infestation of 50,000 hectares of maize fields in the country, many farmers are now increasingly becoming aware of the pest.

He adds that the Kenyan government has established a technical team to work on integrated pest management approach that is biologically sustainable and environmentally friendly.
 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.

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