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Experts meet in Nairobi to solve fall armyworm menace in Africa

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A University of Nebraska diagram showing the features of the fall army worm. Photo by University of Nebraska. 

Global agriculture stakeholders meeting in Nairobi are working out the best integrated pest management practices to complement chemicals in controlling the fall armyworm (FAW), which has attacked more than 750,000 acres of maize in the continent.

From the two-day deliberations, the researchers, government and non-governmental organisations and other private stakeholders are forging short-term, mid-term and long-term solutions to the fast spreading pest that is threatening food security in Africa.

The meeting was organised by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO)

Besides maize, FAW feeds on more than 80 other crops including wheat, sorghum, potatoes, sugarcane, pastures, among others. It spreads at a speed of 100km per day, according to FAO.

It can cause up to 70 per cent losses, and if uncontrolled, the damage can reach 100 per cent. The larvae feed on leaves, tassels and ears of maize. The leaves have ragged continued holes.

“Management (IPM) is one of the best solutions of controlling the pest. America has not eliminated the FAW. It is about finding the cost-effective, efficient and easy application ways of controlling the pest,” Boddupalli Prasanna, the CIMMYT director of global maize programme, said.

He added that technology can help, but it may take more than two years before hybrids resistant to the FAW are bred and commercialized in Africa, yet farmers need immediate actions.

AGRA’s Vice President for Programme and Innovation Joe DeVries said early detection and rapid response are the immediate actions that could control the pest from spreading and damaging more crops.

“It is about placing the farmer at the heart of the fight against the FAW. We (various organisation) must support the farmers using chemicals and other concoctions in fighting the pest,” Dr DeVries said.

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The FAW – a pest native to the North, Central and South America – was first reported in Nigeria in January 2016. Within a year, it has engulfed almost the entire Sub-Saharan Africa. It resembles the African armyworm.  

One of the differentiating features of the FAW from the African type is the inverted ‘Y’ shaped white mark running from the back to the forehead towards the mouth.

At the detection of the FAW, farmers apply the normal dosage of chemical pesticides thinking it is the African type. When the pest persists, they double the dosage, which is not only threatening the food safety, but also the environment.

Overdose application may also result in emergency of resistance from the few that may survive the ‘knock down method’.

“Information must be harnessed and shared between the organisations and the farmers. Farmer’s methods, which have somehow succeeded, have to be included in the fight against the FAW,” USAID Deputy Mission Director to East Africa Candace Buzzard said.

Researcher, Mathew Matimelo, said farmers in Zambia using neem tree extracts have reported “impressive” results in controlling the pest.  

Besides training the farmers, FAO official Mathew Abong said local scouts and chiefs have to be involved in the identification and reporting of the emergency of the pest to authorities for quick action.

FAO representative to Kenya, Gabriel Rugalema, said there must be sub-regional and regional efforts to combat the pest adding that they do not know borders.

In Kenya, the invasion has been reported in more than five counties in the western and Rift Valley regions.

Representing the government of Kenya, Clement Muyesu said the Ministry of Agriculture has requested for an additional Sh320 million from the National Treasury to effectively fight the FAW that is threatening to wipe out between 27,500 acres and 37,500 acres of maize.

Among other functions, the money will be used in buying pesticides for the farmers, who cannot afford.

Upon detection, the government sent aside Sh100 million for surveillance and other control measures.

The FAW covers 100km per day. After the first case was reported in Nigeria in 2016, the pest has colonised the Southern African region by January 2017. It was first detected in Kenya in March 2017.

Affected countries include Angola, Zambia, South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, Tanzania, Swaziland, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, among others.

Although individual small-scale farmers cannot afford surveillance pheromones that attract the males to the trap nets, checking for the inverted ‘Y’ running on the forehead confirms the infestation.

A search on 20 plants in five locations or 10 plants in 10 locations is adequate to assess the infestation extent.

The April 27-28 meeting is taking place at the Villa Rosa Kempinski hotel, Nairobi.

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