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Armyworm invasion could spread to East Africa

Sunday February 12 2017

An undated handout picture released by Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International in London on February 6, 2017, shows an armyworm caterpillar eating the kernels of a cob of corn. PHOTO | AFP PHOTO

An undated handout picture released by Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International in London on February 6, 2017, shows an armyworm caterpillar eating the kernels of a cob of corn. PHOTO | AFP PHOTO  

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If you thought the current drought ravaging many parts of the country was bad enough, then brace yourself for an invasion of the armyworm.

Experts have warned that an invasion of the maize destroying armyworm in Southern Africa could spread towards East Africa in the next few months.

This comes as the Kenyan government says it is on high alert as the pest spreads across the continent.

The African Armyworm and the more destructive Fall Armyworm – a non-indigenous pest that originated from the Americas – have destroyed almost the entire maize crop in six countries.

And while attacks by the African Armyworm are not new on the continent, with the last one being witnessed in Kenya in 2014, it is the first emergence of the Fall Armyworm in southern Africa with the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reporting crop damage of up to 70 per cent in some areas.

FAO’s sub-regional coordinator for Southern Africa, Mr David Phiri, while issuing a red alert posted on their website, says the situation is constantly evolving.


“The situation remains fluid. Preliminary reports indicate a possible presence of the pest in Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has positively identified the presence of the pest while the rest are expected to release test results soon,” he said.


“If the pest damage aggravates, it could dampen prospects for a good crop harvest that is anticipated in the current farming season in regions reeling from the effects of two consecutive years of El Nino-induced drought,” he said.

According to FAO’s warning, unlike the African Armyworm, the Fall Armyworm, which is dispersed by wind, burrows inside maize stems and cobs making it difficult to detect and can lay up to six generations of up to 50 eggs in one location leading to rapid destruction.

It mostly attacks plants belonging to the grass family like maize and sorghum but it can also ravage beans, groundnuts, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, spinach, tomatoes, cabbage, cucumbers, cotton, tobacco and clovers.
It is also difficult to control the pest which is the larvae stage of a Fall Armyworm moth and gets its name from the way it attacks crops by eating everything. It is said a single pesticide cannot neutralise the pest once it is at the larval stage.
In Zambia, the BBC reports that the government has spent $3 million (Sh300 million) to set up disaster management units and to deploy its airforce whose jets are combing the skies to spray insecticides in order to limit the damage.
The Kenyan government says it is on high alert and is already monitoring the situation.
“We have deployed surveillance teams and satellites on our border points particularly along Tanzania and Southern Uganda so as to warn us in advance,” Agriculture Principal Secretary Richard Lesiyampe told the Nation.


“We have also set aside a budget to deal with the situation as it occurs because we know the pest can eat everything. But from what we know so far, the Amyworms is still very far away in Namibia,” he said.
Facing a shortfall
Already the country is facing a shortfall of at least 10 million bags as a result of poor rainfall in the last season and alleged yellowing of maize.
So if the Armyworm attack that is ravaging Southern Africa does happen in the country and is not controlled in time, it would be disastrous. The weather man has predicted the long rains will arrive in April.
Farmers are, however, hopeful that, by then, the pest will have been neutralised.
“If the message is disseminated in good time, we might contain the menace because the rains usually kill the Armyworm,” Mr Kipkorir arap Menjo, the Kenya Farmers’ Association (KFA) chair, said.

“However, farmers need to be vigilant because these things usually happen after a drought,” he said.

In America where the Fall Armyworm originates from, scientists have been able to control its devastating effects through genetically modified crops, which have proved to be resistant to its invasion.