The good, bad and ugly in fight against armyworms

About a month since government confirmed invasion of armyworms, farmers are still grappling with the pest, with a majority yet to receive pesticides promised.

Patrick Wanjala, a maize farmer in Namanjalala, Trans Nzoia County displays a maize plant attacked by armyworm in his farm. The pest has potential of causing famine since the larva not only feeds on staple food crops but also grass, pasture and any green vegetation. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

IN SUMMARY

  • Armyworm has potential of causing famine since the larva not only feeds on staple food crops (maize, wheat, millets and sorghum) but also grass, pasture and any green vegetation mainly on the leaf lamina, leaving only the mid-rib
  • Over a month since the government confirmed invasion of armyworms, little progress has been made in eradicating the ravenous pest.
  • Sunny and humid conditions help to control multiplication of the pest.
  • Normally, the pests feed in the evenings and early morning and this is the time we are asking farmers to spray, but with the heavy rains, when they spray the chemicals are washed away

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From far, Malaki village, about some 6km from Kitale town in Kwanza in Trans Nzoia County, is lush green, with farms teeming with the maize crop. Nothing looks unusual at various fields but as one moves closer to the maize farms, a different story unravels.

The maize crop has been ravaged extensively by the fall armyworms, with the area being the worst affected by the pests.

Patrick Wanjala, a maize and beans farmer, bends for the umpteenth time looking at his crop. His face is forlorn showing the anguish and frustration that the pest has caused him.

“I have never seen anything like this before in my life as a farmer. I am not sure if I will harvest any maize this season.”

Under normal circumstances, he would have harvested between 60 and 70 90kg bags from his one-and-half-acres.

“It started with small holes on the plants’ leaves and I thought it was just the stem borer as that is the common pest here. I sprayed but nothing changed then reports of the armyworms having invaded the region filtered in,” recounts Wanjala.

In a bid to tame the notorious pest, Wanjala said he applied ash and even red soil as desperation set in.

“I tried that hoping that it would work but it was all in vain,” says Wanjala, whose crop was attacked some two months ago.

Then hope came when the government announced that it was coming up with measures to tackle the pest that is a threat to food security since it is destroying maize.

Armyworm has potential of causing famine since the larva not only feeds on staple food crops (maize, wheat, millets and sorghum) but also grass, pasture and any green vegetation mainly on the leaf lamina, leaving only the mid-rib

Read: (Armyworm complicates East Africa’s food security calculations)

A team was set up at the county and national level to co-ordinate the fight against the worms.

But to date, Wanjala says he has not received any chemicals from either the county or national government as promised.

“I have been to the county offices several times hoping to get chemicals in vain. Two days ago I went there. More than 2,000 of us had turned up and the chemicals were not enough despite the little amounts they were giving,” says Wanjala, who is yet to spray any chemicals on his maize crop.

ONGOING RAINS

So far, according to the county government, some 15,000 acres of maize have been affected in the region, but the inspection of the fields is ongoing to ascertain exact figure.

The ravenous pest has fed on the “heart” of most of plants leading to stunted growth.

Trans Nzoia County, which is the country’s food basket has borne the brunt of the armyworm attack, with an estimated thousands acres of maize having been ravaged.

County’s chief agriculture officer Mary Nzomo says the county is distributing chemicals to farmers to contain the situation, though they are not enough.

“We have been able to spray about 10,000 acres out of the over 15,000 affected by the pest,” says Nzomo, noting an adult worm lays up to 2,000 eggs and it’s important to kill them before they become adults to avoid spreading. Besides spraying, she says the county has taken other measures to curb spread, which include sensitisation of farmers.

Maize crop attacked by the pest in a farm. Normally, the pests feed in the evenings and early morning. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

“We are holding public barazas where we also distribute educational flyers and we do on-farm demonstrations. We are currently holding talks on FM radios as well as print and broadcast media to spread the message,” she says.

She notes despite promise by the national government that they will get chemicals since it recommended the spraying be done three times, no pesticides have been distributed to them and in the nearby Uasin Gishu County.

“Those farmers that have sprayed have noticed the chemicals are working. What we are telling farmers is that if you spot the pest in your area, you need to spray all maize plants including those that have not been attacked to avoid re-infestation,” says Nzomo. 

Other factors are also hampering the struggle to eradicate the pest including the rains.

“Sunny and humid conditions help control multiplication of the pest but with the ongoing rains, it becomes a challenge to spray. Normally, the pests feed in the evenings and early morning and this is the time we are asking farmers to spray, but with the heavy rains, when they spray the chemicals are washed away.”

(Read Also: 10 things you need to know about the armyworm )

The farmers have been advised to spray at least three times in two weeks after germination, when the crops are knee-high and during the formation of the tarsals (about the flowering stage) to control the pest.

SALVAGE CROPS

Last month, Trans Nzoia set aside Sh45 million while Uasin Gishu Sh2 million to fight the pest.

“This was to cover about 20 per cent of farmers, mainly small-scale. On average, the cost of spraying is about Sh2,000 per acre but we are assisting to do one spraying for farmers,” says Nzomo.

Joseph Cheboi, Uasin Gishu County Director of Agriculture, says that four out of six sub counties have reported armyworm infestation, with Soy and Moiben that border Trans Nzoia County being worst hit.

Bernard Kimuiguei, a farmer in Kipsombe in Soy, says that his 20 out of 40 acres under maize has been affected.

“I was given some chemicals by the county officials but they were too little. I have to dig deeper into my pockets and it is really costly,” he says.

Dr Victoria Tarus, county chief officer in-charge of agriculture, says approximately 600 acres have been infested but they are distributing chemicals to farmers.

Robert Aluda, a farmer in Namanjalala Trans Nzoia, says besides the failure to get pesticides, lack of information on how to control the pest is also the biggest setback.

Trans Nzoia County Deputy Governor Stanley Tarus, Agriculture Chief Officer in the county Mary Nzomo and farmers during the launch of Fall Armyworm Management Campaign in the county on May 09, 2017. Farmers whose maize crop had been infested were given pesticides to fight the invasion. PHOTO | JARED NYATAYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

“If we knew from the beginning what the pest was and how to eradicate it, we would have salvaged our crops. We just heard on the radio that a pest had crossed the Kenya-Uganda border but we thought it won’t be that destructive so we did not act fast,” says Aluda, who took a bank loan of Sh50,000 and sank into the maize farm.

But it is not all gloom. Charles Sawe from Moiben says he bought himself chemicals recommended by agricultural extension officers and he has been able to clear the worms on his expansive farm.

He says that only few farmers have received the government chemicals.

UNDER CONTROL

The government recommended the following chemicals; Duduthrin, Twigapyrifos, Belt, Match, Ranger, Loyalty, Integra, Orthene, Jackpot, Imaxi. They are also using cocktails and are working well.

Other chemicals include Chlorpyrfos, Alpha Cypermerthrin , Indoxarb, Di Ubenzuron, Clorantraniliprole and Spinetoram.

At the Coast, where there was African armyworm attack, farmers have reported success in eradication of the pest. In Taita Taveta County, the armyworms invaded Njukini and Challa within the agriculturally rich Kasigau-Maktau belt and some parts of Mwatate.

Agriculture chief officer Evans Mbinga said the worms invaded 25 hectares under maize crop as well as some ranches. “At least 60 farmers were affected by the armyworms invasion, which followed rains after a prolonged drought. Following the rains, new grass sprang up and it created a conducive environment for the armyworms to multiply,” he explains.

The agriculture official says the county has brought the armyworm invasion under control after spraying pesticides on affected farms. “County field officers teamed up with farmers in spraying the pesticide known as Cypermetherin which wiped off the armyworms.”

Joseph Ivuso, a farmer in Taita, whose 2.5 acres of maize were invaded says he eradicated the pest with the help of county agricultural officers.

In Kwale County, the director of agriculture David Wanjala says the armyworms invaded 25 acres of maize in Lunga Lunga.

However, he noted that the pests did not cause a big damage. “When the farmers planted maize, the moths were at pupae stage in the soil, so when the rains started pounding the region they easily drowned.”

But despite the rains wiping away the pests, Wanjala says the county is expected to receive 1,000 litres of pesticide from the national government next week, which would be used in case the worms reappear.

Additional reporting by Mathias Ringa

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