Experts say that containing the pest's impact on food security, nutrition and income generation will be a herculean task.
Sub-Saharan Africa will require a staggering $600 million annually to contain a trans-boundary pest, the fall armyworm, that is wreaking havoc across farmlands.
Although the pest has only been in Africa for slightly over a year, having first been reported in Nigeria in January 2016, it has now spread to most parts of sub-Saharan Africa, causing severe crop damage particularly in Southern and East Africa.
The worm has the ability to cover 100km in a day.
With its origins in the tropics of North, Central and South America, the pest is now marching across Africa and experts say that containing its impact on food security, nutrition and income generation will be a herculean task.
Dr Boddupalli Prasanna, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre director, said that Brazil spends an estimated $600 million annually to contain the armyworm and offers the benchmark for Africa in terms of resources required to tackle the menace.
“Brazil is a useful benchmark in terms of funding requirements but various organisations are interested in contributing to Africa’s agriculture development,” he said.
In the United States, the fall armyworm ranks second among seven of the most damaging agricultural pests, causing significant economic losses of between $39 million and $297 million annually, and an annual maize yield loss of two per cent.
As Africa starts to fathom the magnitude of threats presented by the fall armyworm in the medium and long term, containing the pest in the immediate future is becoming a matter of urgency.
In a span of five months after first being detected in Zambia in December, the voracious worm has spread through most of the Southern and East Africa where it is destroying thousands of hectares of maize crop, the staple food in many of these countries.
Being discovered at around planting season in many countries, there are fears that food production could be affected, and not only undermining recovery efforts but also threatening livelihoods and the food security of millions of people.
“The pest has the potential to devastate peoples live and will definitely cause an increase in maize prices,” said Dr Lewis Hove, an expert at the Food and Agriculture Organisation.
The damage is just beginning, considering the pest is expected to spread in intensity and geographical coverage and comes in the aftermath of a severe drought that has left over 40 million people in the region facing food insecurity.
Already about 420,000 hectares of maize crop in Southern and East Africa has been destroyed. Across the continent, there are about 35 million hectares of maize crop.
In Zambia the pest has so far invaded 90,000 hectares of maize, in Malawi 17,000, Zimbabwe 130,000 and Namibia 50,000. The government of Zambia has put aside $3 million to buy chemicals and seeds for farmers to replant some areas.
In East Africa, the fall armyworm has already eaten through more than 15,300 hectares of maize in Rwanda and between 11,000 and 15,000 hectares in Kenya.
According to Clement Muyesu, Assistant Director of Agriculture at Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture, the government is engaged in frantic efforts to contain the spread of the pest in the rest of the 1.5 million hectares under maize.
While the Kenya government has set aside about $1 million to tackle the menace, the Ministry of Agriculture has approached the National Treasury for an additional $3 million to buy chemicals for farmers.
“We have shortlisted chemicals that we think can be effective but some farmers cannot afford them and we are looking for funds to help them buy,” he said.
But as governments desperately bank on chemicals to contain the pest, challenges are emerging. In some countries, the worm has already developed resistance to the pesticides being used, forcing farmers to increase the concentration levels of chemicals.
Experts fear the heavy use of pesticides is likely to impact negatively on the environment and human health.
In Tanzania, the fall armyworm has attacked farms in the western and northern zones.
The government fears huge crop losses as it seeks alternatives to the commonly used pesticides to which the armyworm has proved resistant. The most affected are the major maize producing regions around Lake Tanganyika.
Deputy Minister for Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries William ole Nasha told The EastAfrican that agricultural experts from his ministry are looking at new methods to combat the spread of the new species armyworm.
Additional reporting by Apolinari Tairo