Region fights fall army worm invasion; maize, sugarcane farms under attack

Thursday April 13 2017

Armyworm invasion: The African armyworm is capable of destroying whole crops in a few days. PHOTO | AFP | CABI

Armyworm invasion: The African armyworm is capable of destroying whole crops in a few days. PHOTO | AFP | CABI 

By ALLAN OLINGO

Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have allocated more than $7.85 million for the purchase of specialised chemicals to fight the fall army worm, which is now threatening to wipe out the maize and sugarcane crop.

The destructive pest has wreaked havoc in Southern Africa in the past four months.

On April 5, Kenya said some of its maize fields had been attacked by the army worm, a threat to the country’s already thin grain reserves as it seeks to avert $117 million in crop losses.

The same day, Uganda allocated $6.85 million towards the purchase of the chemicals, to save its farmers from a loss of 450,000 tonnes of grain valued at $200 million.

Uganda’s Agriculture Minister Christopher Kibazanga said they were developing short- and long-term plans to contain the army worm.

“As an emergency measure, we have already set aside $6.85 million for the purchase of appropriate pesticides known to have worked successfully elsewhere in the control of army worms. So far, we have confirmed damages to both the maize and sugarcane crops,” Mr Kibazanga said.

Two weeks ago, Uganda said the army worm had infested its maize fields, leaving this year’s harvest in doubt and heightening concerns that Kenya would also be affected.

Maize-growing areas attacked

A taskforce comprising scientists and ministry officials was formed to combat the outbreak and the spread of the pests.

Johnson Irungu, the director of crops at the Ministry of Agriculture, said that Kenya had already sent a team of scientists to investigate reports that some maize farms in the western belt, the key production basket for the country’s grains, have been attacked.

“The team has been working with the farmers to verify these reports for the past two weeks. We are also working with local authorities to deal with the army worm attacks. We have asked the farmers to control them within their boundaries,” Mr Irungu said.

In a circular released recently, plant experts from the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO), Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service and crop chemical firms will undertake joint inspections and come up with a mechanism to tackle the menace.

Tanzania has also sounded the alarm, even as other regional countries put in emergency measures after the pest’s invasion were reported in various maize-growing areas.

The insect species is said to have already destroyed about 3,000 hectares of maize farms in Chalinze ward in Tanzania.

Farmers in the area have almost given up fighting the worms. The authorities confirmed the invasion had started in February.

The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Fisheries Mathew Mtigumwe said that the government was aware of the presence of the new species, and has embarked on various initiatives to control the situation in Katavi, Mbeya and Songwe areas. 

The army worms have also invaded Nkasi district in Rukwa region from neighbouring Zambia.

Tanzania has already bought pesticides worth $132,439, and is educating farmers on how to fight the worms.

Trans Nzoia and Kakamega counties in Kenya have allocated $1 million to mitigate the invasion, which is threatening more than 1,000 hectares of maize and thousands of sugarcane plantations.

Trans Nzoia is Kenya’s biggest maize growing area, producing more than 5.4 million tonnes of maize annually. Kenyan farmers stand to lose more than $117 million in grain losses.

“We have had an assessment done by agricultural officers that has shown that the pest is already present in our maize fields. The fall army worm is new in Africa and it attacks maize at all stages, and spreads very fast in the early stages. It is devastating once it develops into a moth as it poses a greater risks to the growth of crops,” Trans Nzoia Governor Patrick Khaemba said.

He added that the worm comes in the form of either stoke borers or cut worms, so a farmer may not be aware that the farm is affected, and that the infestation takes different forms.

Resistance

Farmers in these regions are waiting on the government to come up with directives on how to tackle the worm, especially on the cost and access to the specialised pesticides as the pests are said to be resistant to the convectional chemicals.

“We are dealing with a new yet deadly pest that feeds on both young and mature plants. That is worrying as we are at risk of losing all our crops. Fighting it is also a challenge because it doesn’t respond to regular pesticides, yet we have to fork out $200 and end up failing to control the pest if you use the wrong chemicals,” Mr Khaemba said.

The region is already facing a reduction in maize harvests this year due to the army worm invasion and the erratic rainfall.

The latest Regional Supply and Market Outlook East Africa by USAid’s Famine Early Warning Systems shows that maize supply in the region is expected to fall to 1.2 million tonnes this year, from an average of 2.7 million tonnes, with Uganda, the only regional country with a surplus, expected to record a drop to 1.03 million tonnes, from 1.18 million tonnes.

Additional reporting by Emmanuel Onyang