Before it arrived in Kenya, the dreaded fall armyworm, which has the potential to drive a nation into famine, had ravaged more than 300,000 hectares of food crop in Southern Africa.
This is the first time the pest was being detected in Kenya, so nobody knew what to do.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) says it is native to South America since 1957 and has been ravaging Brazil.
Researchers say it could have been shipped into Africa with maize.
According to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, it first landed in Nigeria in January 2016 and then made its way into Southern Africa early this year, arriving in Kenya in March.
Despite the pest being barely a year on the continent, the FAO says Zambia has lost 90,000 hectares of crop and Malawi and Zimbabwe 17,000 and 130,000, respectively.
The worm thrives in temperatures over 10 degrees Celsius — basically, anywhere in Africa. All the countries it has attacked are Africa’s key producers of maize, the staple food of more than 80 million people, and FAO’s Africa co-ordinator David Phiri is worried about food security.
By April 28, armyworm invasions had been confirmed in 14 other countries, including East African. Our technocrats and researchers formed a technical working team comprising experts from Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro), Centre for Agricultural and Biosciences International (Cabi), pesticide manufacturers, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (Kephis) and the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries.
We have lost approximately 15,000 hectares of maize, valued at Sh1.3 billion, with the annual loss estimated at 40 million bags (Sh120 billion, at Sh3,000 each).
This is a threat to our agricultural survival and experts have to learn how other countries battled it and apply control measures that have proved successful on other crops.
Small-scale farmers contribute 70 per cent of agricultural production in Kenya.
These, according to FAO, hold the key to the success on the war on fall armyworm.
Possible solutions put forward include intercropping with legumes, which, in Nicaragua, reduced infestation by 30 per cent in 1981.
Cassava plant has also been cited as immune to the pest’s appetite because of the cyanide it produces.
Another is biological warfare. In 2013, Kalro used pheromones—a chemical produced by an insect to modify how members of its species relate to it—to reduce sandflies, which had so ravaged Kenya’s avocado crop that South Africa banned it.
Genetic engineering is also a possible solution. The best example is the United States, which has resisted massive fall armyworm losses by planting genetically modified (GMO) maize.
KIMANI WA NJUGUNA, Kiambu.