Hope for farmers battling armyworm

Friday February 16 2018
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Elizabeth Nduku, a smallholder maize farmer in Kangundo inspects her maize crop. Her drought-ravaged farm now faces a new challenge in fall armyworm invasion. PHOTO | BRIAN OKINDA | NMG


Elizabeth Nduku, a smallholder maize farmer in Lukenya area of Kangundo, is dejected. Her crop is worse off than the previous seasons.

This is because other than the usual drought that normally devastates the crops, a new threat has come into the picture: fall armyworm.

For close to 10 years that she has been practicing subsistence maize farming , Nduku says she has only had a good harvest in two seasons.

“The rest of the seasons I merely made do with the little harvest I got. But this season even the little that I anticipated has been ravaged by these crawlers,” she said.

Nduku’s case is replicated in many farms in the predominantly smallholder maize farming area.

Most of the farmers in the region are decrying the fall armyworm menace which started as a simple, seemingly manageable condition but has now grown so ferocious that it can no longer be disregarded.


Grace Nyambeki, also a smallscale maize farmer in the area, has had similar experiences; her maize crops are under threat too and like many other farmers she is staring at food insecurity.

Christopher Muasya Mutela another farmer who has been farming maize for the past 18 years has similarly decried the invasion of the pest.

“These pests are proving to be equally if not more devastating than the drought. I used to harvest up to 50 bags of maize and beans every season. This season, however, I’ll be lucky to get anything more than 10 bags, yet I spend up to Sh1,500 to prepare each acre for planting and providing the requisite conditions for my crops to thrive,” he said, adding the fall armyworms appear resistant to all pesticides he used.

But there could be hope for these farmers after all.

During a field tour of farms in the region to investigate the extent of damage caused by the worms, Dr Murenga Mwimali a principal scientist and maize breeder at Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization’s (Kalro), Katumani Station, had something to inspire the farmers.

Dr Mwimali said the organisation had already developed better seeds to counter the predatory worms and drought and is in the process of developing even more hardier and resilient crop seeds that could alleviate the challenges facing the farmers in the region.

“We have resistant maize variety seeds at our Kiboko, Kitale and Katumani centres, which are robust and resilient and can be effective in controlling the fall armyworms and also thrive in the dry conditions.


He said climate changes bring along new problems to agriculture by providing conditions that are prime for these challenges to thrive hence strategies have to be put in place to help in battling the twin challenges alongside any emergent complications.

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Christopher Muasya Mutela and Grace Nyambeki, both maize farmers in Kangundo also contend with the fall armyworm outbreak in the area. Dr Murenga Mwimali, a principal scientist and maize breeder at Kalro notes that the organisation has come up with interventions to curb the menace. PHOTOS | BRIAN OKINDA | NMG

“Drought cycles have always been there in the country affecting food production, but with the emergence of fall armyworm which just found a home in the region, the situation will be even harder for farmers as the pests are here to stay and can no longer be ignored. It is consequently a prerequisite that we readapt ourselves and our farming methods to be able to live within these circumstances,” he said.

Dr Mwimali nonetheless noted that through the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) programme, they have developed the DroughtTEGO™ hybrid maize varieties that have resistance capabilities towards varied pests including the fall armyworm, stem borers and stalk borers.

There are Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) genes that can control the fall armyworms, which if harnessed, could work well as a control strategy for the pest, according to the scientist.

“Our researches have established that Bt maize is not only able to control stem borers, but also the fall armyworm,” said Dr Mwimali, who heads the WEMA programme, adding that their other maize varieties are resilient to droughts and low water conditions.

Noting that the solution to the menace required new thinking and embracing innovative ideas, he called upon the government to facilitate uptake of novel effective technological innovations especially in the seed sector to alleviate the effects of drought and fall pests.

Dr Mwimali additionally advised on investing on irrigation systems to boost the fight against food insecurity.

The fall armyworm outbreak, which has largely targeted key maize growing regions in the country, is projected to diminish the crop’s production by up to five per cent with the unreliable weather contributing about 20 percent of produce losses, leading to a forecasted drop of nearly 10 million bags this year.

And while the country seems to be edging closer to on approving genetically modified organisms, which could be handy in controlling the emergent farming adversities, they could essentially be the solution to stopping these challenges.