The ongoing march by armies of desert locusts — a virulent species of the grasshopper family that eats every green matter on sight — threatens the country’s food security and, by extension, the economy, experts warn.
Experts say the pests have the potential of destroying swathes of maize, coffee, vegetable and tea plantations, and can knock down seasons of food, prompting acute hunger.
Any disruption in the agriculture sector, a major driver of Kenya’s economy that contributes up to Sh2.9 trillion, according to last year’s estimates, can substantially slow down growth.
On Monday, the pests had reached Kirinyaga and Laikipia, two counties with substantial agriculture, raising fears that other neighbouring regions could be affected.
Laikipia is home to large-scale farms where some of Kenya’s best agricultural efforts have been demonstrated.
Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri, speaking before he was fired Tuesday, admitted that pest invasion and the potential to spread rapidly to other counties posed an unprecedented threat to food security.
Locusts were first spotted in Mandera on December 28 before they spread to neighbouring Wajir, Garissa and Marsabit. They have now entered Isiolo, Meru and Samburu.
Control measures involve the use of planes and vehicles to carry out survey and control operations and use of pesticides with as little negative impact on the environment as possible.
Other desperate measures have seen police shoot in the air and spray tear gas at the pests, while residents clap their hands, whistle and bang cans to try and chase away the thick clouds of locusts, but the insects continue to march.
A Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) forecast in the Horn of Africa paints the situation as extremely serious, the worst in 25 years, though it says breeding is expected to be low in Kenya.
Agriculture Principal Secretary Hamadi Boga said the government was yet to quantify the loss as the focus was on control, but past attacks have caused losses of up to 70 per cent.
While the pests have largely destroyed pasture in rangeland counties and the relatively small patches of farms in the arid and semi-arid counties, the voracious locusts have a strong preference for graminaceous plants, such as millet and maize, and their advance into the country’s food basket areas would be devastating.
Swarms can travel up to 130km (80 miles) per day and a kilometre-wide swarm can contain up to 80 million locusts, according to FAO.
Experts estimate that the insects are capable of destroying at least 200 tonnes of vegetation per day.
Daily Nation teams that visited the affected counties witnessed a deteriorating situation despite the government’s efforts to combat the locusts through ground and aerial control.
The attack appears to be more serious than FAO’s earlier projection and has been made worse by heavy rainfall and floods.
The FAO, in its locust situation update on January 6, had warned of “a low risk of breeding in Kenya”.
The voracious insect now threatens rice, wheat, miraa, coffee, tea and maize, affecting the livelihoods of millions of people.
On Monday, the Kirinyaga County government dispatched agricultural officers to Riandira village following reports that locusts had been spotted there.
On Sunday, panic gripped residents after the insects landed in the village.
Residents are worried that the voracious feeders may spread to the whole region and wreak havoc on the maize, rice, tea and coffee farms. The insects have already invaded farms belonging to two farmers at Riandira.
“Locusts are now in my farm. They are feeding on my trees and they are spreading fast,” said Mr Isaac Ndung’u.
LIVELIHOODS IN JEOPARDY
In Isiolo, herders are counting losses after 150 square kilometres of pasture were completely destroyed by the locusts that invaded the county last Wednesday.
In Isiolo, 3,150 square kilometres of land in Garbatulla and Merti sub-counties had been covered by the destructive pests, according to county officials.
Mr Salad Jillo, the county chief officer in charge of agriculture, said the pests caused total destruction of pasture in four areas where they have settled.
He chairs the Isiolo, Samburu, Meru and Laikipia Locust Coordination Team. Aerial spraying of the locusts at Kipsing -- within the Isiolo-Laikipia border -- and Kachiuru in Meru County started on Sunday morning.
The two aircraft — one provided by the government and another by Farmland Aviation, a private organisation — on Monday sprayed Serolipi area in Samburu East, Kipsing and Shaba areas in Isiolo.
Specialists had recommended spraying for two consecutive days to ensure all the remnants are dealt with.
Mr Jillo appealed to the government to make available more funds, arguing that Farmland Aviation and Northern Rangelands Trust had been financially overstretched.
Mr Jillo said they fear that if the situation is not contained in good time, the insects may move to upper parts of the populated county, where quite a big number of residents practise farming.
Garbatulla Assistant County Commissioner Charles Jura told the Nation that the locusts had by Sunday afternoon migrated from the sub-county, where they had initially covered 3,000 square kilometres of land, but left a trail of destruction that threatens pasture for the animals.
Mandera County’s Department of Agriculture estimates that the insects had covered 12,000 square kilometres of land since the invasion began a fortnight ago.
Herders have been asked to avoid grazing their animals within the sprayed areas for the next one week.
In Tharaka-Nithi, Governor Muthomi Njuki has assured residents that his government and the national government had put in place measures to control the invasion.
Mr Njuki said they had formed a caucus with the leadership of the neighbouring Meru and Isiolo counties to fight the insects.
Agricultural and administration officers had been put on alert.
He urged farmers to harvest as much of their crops as they can to avoid incurring heavy losses.
And Meru National Park Senior Warden Bakari Chongwa said the park is safe, adding that he has put in place measures to repulse the insects.
He said the insects can wreak havoc on vegetation that wild animals rely on, which could lead to starvation.
And in Laikipia, ranchers in collaboration with the county government have launched aerial spraying of locusts, which travelled from Kipsing in Isiolo. They were spotted on Sunday at Lentile Hills.
Dr Muo Kasina, the Entomological Society of Kenya chairman, said the locusts were blown by the wind from the Middle East, where they have been causing damage for the last 18 months.
An average swarm contains between 10 and 50 million locusts, but can be larger, and can fly for between 100 and 150 kilometres a day.
“The current population is not the major problem. What will result from the swarm, which is the next generation of locusts, will become the biggest problem,” said Dr Kasina.
According to the entomologist, the best way to stop the spread of the locusts would be to deal with them at the affected locations.
“We should let them settle in the areas where they have so far invaded and then apply control measures like eating them or using aerial sprays to kill the swarms."
He stressed the importance of targeting their breeding sites as a method of controlling the insects.
And on Monday, Mr Keith Cressman, a senior forecasting officer attached to FAO, said in a phone interview that more swarms were entering the north-eastern parts of the country on a daily basis.
He said the locusts were taking a southerly direction into Garissa and are expected to reach Lamu, Tana River and then move west into the Rift Valley in pursuit of the good vegetation; then move north to Lake Turkana region.
He said this would hit the food basket hard and urged the government to take the problem seriously.
Reports by Waweru Wairimu, Aggrey Omboki, David Muchui and Pauline Kairu