Kenya could lose half of its maize crop and face a massive food crisis following an invasion of the Fall armyworm.
Although the ministry of Agriculture has no reliable data on the extent of the infestation and the impact it will have on food, the US Agency for International Development (USAid) estimates that up to 50 per cent of the maize crop could be destroyed.
The pest also attacks millet, sorghum, cotton and sugar.
Regina Eddy, the coordinator of a USAid task force on the threat, said Kenya and other African countries provided the ideal climate for the spread of the Fall armyworm because of the absence of frost.
Maize is the staple food for about 80 per cent of the population, including the urban.
An increase in the price of maize meal is not just an economic nightmare, with consequences across the economy, but is also a national security concern due to the risk of political instability.
In 2016, almost 30 million 90-kilogramme bags of maize were consumed.
About 40 million bags are produced in a good year, some of which are exported.
Last year, the government spent Sh6 billion on a dubious maize subsidy programme.
The anticipated destruction caused by the insect, which is actually a caterpillar and not a worm, could worsen critical food shortages afflicting parts of Kenya and other African countries, Ms Eddy said.
“The first mouth that will be fed will be the Fall armyworm’s,” she said with regard to its impact on smallholders.
In addition to depriving families of food, the pest will take a toll on farmers’ incomes, she said.
A study commissioned last year by the British government’s Department for International Development found that in 12 African countries, total potential losses could range from $2.5 billion (Sh252bn)to $6.3 billion.
The countries included Tanzania and Uganda, but Kenya was not on the list.
According to the director of Crop Research and Agribusiness in the Ministry of Agriculture, Dr Johnson Irungu, it is still early to predict the impact of the Fall armyworm.
“Our officers are currently gathering data on the impact of these pests and we will soon have a report on the actual status in the country,” Dr Irungu said.
The government, he revealed, is currently developing an integrated pest management (IPM) package, which will include use of parasitoids and technology to combat the pests.
“Our aim is to develop and test these methods for efficacy and use chemicals as the last resort in the fight against the Fall armyworm and other destructive pests,” Dr Irungu said.
He however said there was no deliberate effort by the government to introduce GM crop varieties, owing to the ban on these crops in the country.
While the Fall armyworm was first seen in the major maize-producing counties such as Trans-Nzoia, others have reported similar sightings raising the alarm about an impending disaster.
Reports from the department of agriculture in Nyeri reveal that the caterpillar has invaded five out of six sub-counties (Kieni, Mathira, Tetu, Mukurwe-ini and Othaya), ravaging maize, grass, onions, cabbages and tomatoes.
The infestation that hit the county in June last year led to massive food crop losses and, as the pests continue to spread across the county, farmers are now staring at a crop failure for the second year running.
The majority of farming households that ordinarily sustain themselves through subsistence farming have now been forced to rely on food bought from the market.
Even as the government has identified and recommended 10 types of pesticides to combat the pests, farmers such as Margaret Njeri from Karima village in Othaya complained of the high cost of the chemical, adding that they are no longer sure of getting returns from their farms.
“I am very scared because we might not realise our full investment in the farms.
"The pest is really destructive. Since last year I have not harvested anything,” Njeri, who has invested Sh7,000 in her small garden, said.
Farmers want both the national and county governments to bail them out of the crisis that could see them realise little or no harvest at all.
Nyeri County executive for Agriculture Henry Kinyua said that surveillance was being carried out in farms by extension officers, adding:
“This year we have intensified training of farmers and our extension agents to scout and identify the pest early enough and apply the relevant measures.”
Nyeri South Agricultural officer Ruffas Mwangi said farmers should target the pest while at its early stages as it gets resistant to pesticides.
Dr Irungu told farmers to spray against the pest at night when there is less movement.
In Nakuru, more than 70,000 hectares of maize were lost to the avid pest last year, which accounted for 30 per cent general loss in the crop countrywide.
According to the United Nation’s (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation (Fao), the amount of food Kenya lost to the pest last year was enough to feed Nakuru and Homabay counties for a year.
When the Nation team visited Mangu village in Rongai, Nakuru County, Mr Daniel Kiprono’s two acres of beans and maize appeared healthy and strong with a lush green across the farm.
Mr Kiprono was however keen to identify any changes on the crop stems and leaves for possible pest infestation.
“In 2017, I harvested only 26 bags of maize from this farm, which normally produces more than 60. I lost the crop to the voracious armyworm,” he said.
“The pests attacked my maize crop when it was three months old and two feet tall.
"When they get into a farm they begin by laying many eggs, then attack the farm like an ‘army’, sweeping across it relentlessly,” he said.
The affected maize crop, he said, cannot even be fed to livestock due to rot.
“We tried spraying but it didn’t work. We even applied ash on the crop that had not been affected to no avail,” Mr Kiprono said.
When Fao conducted a training session for agricultural officers from all the 47 counties in February, it was revealed that chances of eradicating the pest were minimal.
“We are facing a new, determined, voracious and adaptive enemy, which is threatening the future of our crops and the general food security.
"Fall armyworm is a formidable pest that feeds on anything in its sight,” Fao representative in Kenya Gabriel Rugalema said.
Nakuru Agriculture County Executive Committee member Immaculate Njuthe says the county has a budget to control the pests and has bought traps to help combat them.
“The pest has a preference for maize and so we have bought and plan to distribute traps to farmers in addition to the ones we received from the national government to help stop the voracious pest,” Ms Njuthe said.
In the Coast, Taveta and Voi are some of the worst-hit areas, while Marapu, Kajire, Wongonyi, Mata, Njukini, Chala and Kasigau have suffered the menace in the past.
Reports by James Kahongeh, Leonard Onyango, Irene Mugo, Peter Mburu, Lucy Mkanyika and Stephen Oduor