Alarm as fall armyworms spread to 44 counties, destroying crops

Fall Armyworms

State Department for Crop Development Principal Kello Harsama inspecting the extent of damage caused on maize farms by Fall Armyworms in Sololo Ward on May 17, 2023.

Photo credit: Jacob Walter I Nation Media Group

More than 3.5 million farmers in 44 counties have been affected by the highly destructive and fast-spreading fall armyworm.

Speaking in Sololo, Marsabit County, where he distributed pesticides to stop the invasions, State Department of Crop Development Principal Secretary Kello Harsama said 44 counties have been affected by the worms.

“We’re here to establish the extent of damage of the fall armyworms and to put in place urgent mitigation measures to contain the infestations. At least 44 counties across Kenya have been attacked by the fall armyworms,” Mr Harsama said.

He assured farmers the government had set initiatives to contain the spread of the pest, which would likely exacerbate poverty and hunger, coming after a prolonged drought.

He said 10,000 acres across Kenya have been affected. In Marsabit, at least 1,000 acres belonging to 2,750 farmers have been affected.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates maize yield reduction per year because of the worms’ attack could be between USD 2400 and USD 4800 per year in Africa.

Mr Harsama added that the Ministry of Agriculture was also researching to establish how much acreage and how many farmers were affected across Kenya.

He said the government was in the process of distributing pesticides and raising awareness about the worms.

Biological pesiticides

He was optimistic that the use of biological pesticides to combat the insects would effectively avert further losses for farmers.

He added that the State was keen on applying all the International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures (ISPMs) to help countries enforce suitable effective measures to prevent and regulate the pests.

Such measures include pest surveillance, pest risk analysis, phytosanitary inspection, and other phytosanitary treatment methods.

He said the armyworms prefer key crops such as rice, maize, millet, sorghum, sugarcane, vegetable crops, and cotton, and could lead to loss of millions of tonnes of crop if not contained in time.

The PS was accompanied by Moyale MP Guyo Wako who praised the interventions by the Ministry of Agriculture to eliminate the worms.

Uran MCA Halkano Konso said the worms risked causing havoc to farmers just like what the locust invasion of 2019 did.

Sololo community leader Rob Dadach appealed to the State to devise adequate control strategies to help farmers detect the pests early and contain them.

“We appeal to the government to devise fall armyworm early warning systems such as mobile apps and national platforms that can help farmers to report such invasions in a timely way,” Mr Dadach said.

Fall armyworms were first detected in Africa in 2016, according to FAO, and have continued to spread across all sub-Saharan countries and other countries like India and Yemen.

The worm can spread rapidly because its moth can fly up to 100 kilometres in a single night.

It can also spread as a stowaway in airplanes and other means of transportation or through the trade of infested commodities.

According to the Centre for Agricultural and Bioscience International (CABI) reports, severe infestations can reduce per capita household income by 44 per cent and increase the likelihood of households experiencing hunger by 17 per cent.

Households affected by fall armyworms were 11 per cent more likely to grapple with food shortages and their family members had over 13 per cent higher probabilities of going to bed hungry or going the whole day on empty stomachs.

Additionally, the armyworm-affected households that failed to implement control strategies had a 50 per cent lower per capita household income.

However, those who implemented the control strategies did not suffer a significant loss, according to the FAO.