Hungry locusts threaten food security in sub-Saharan Africa

By Verenardo Meeme

January 28, 2020

Lessons learned from controlling the fall armyworm invasion in Kenya are being employed to fight the swarms of desert locusts devouring crops and threatening food security in sub-Saharan Africa, said Professor Hamadi Mboga, principal secretary in the ministry of agriculture.

The first swarm crossed the border from Somalia into Kenya on Dec. 28, 2019, with additional swarms emerging from Ethiopia and again from Somalia.

Muthomi Njuki, governor of Tharaka-Nithi County, confirmed that there is panic among farmers, especially in areas where locusts already have invaded agricultural fields.

In response, farmers have rushed to harvest grains, such as maize and sorghum, erroneously thinking that they will be consumed by locusts. “We advise them that the locusts do not feed on grains and that early harvesting poses a threat to storing cereals with high moisture content, presenting a likelihood of aflatoxin contamination,” Njuki told the Alliance for Science.

It’s estimated it will take at least six months to control the locusts. That means the main crop planting season, which starts in March, is likely to be affected as locusts prefer to feed on the soft stems of new growth, further threatening food security.

Eleven counties in Kenya have been affected by the invasion, according to Peter Munya, agriculture cabinet secretary. The government says it has assembled a rapid assessment team in the field to determine the concrete loss on farmers and pastoralists.

Lack of regional cooperation in sharing timely information to help plan how to combat desert locusts contributed to the escalation of swarms, Munya said.

“The horn of Africa has many challenges and we are not in control of what our neighbors are doing,” Munya told the Alliance for Science. “Even to get information to help you plan is an issue.” Countries at war, such as Somalia and Yemen, failed to deploy their usual containment plans — a lapse that escalated the problem, he explained.

“Another challenge identified initially was on the inability to procure the chemicals to control as the government procurement procedures require suppliers to follow certain procedures, given that also some products are imported,” he said. “The delay to control locusts in good time when locusts first invaded slowed down our efforts in containing the threat.”

However, teams currently are busy spraying and monitoring the invasion as the surveillance continues, he said.

“We first gave priority to containing the spread of locusts and thereafter will do the assessment of the loss,” he said. “We did not want to divide our attention in counting the loss before containing the menace. This is a continuous process as swarms of locusts are still coming from Somalia, so it is impossible to know the real costs.”

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the desert locust invasion is the worst to hit the horn of Africa in the past 25 years and Kenya in the last 70. The Kenya government, in close collaboration with various stakeholders, is spending US$5 million to fight the menace.

So far, training is still ongoing in twenty-one counties on how to handle locust invasion, Munya said. “We are training Kenya Wildlife Service and Kenya Forest Service teams to monitor parks and forests where there are no human habitats.” The government also hopes to add more airplanes as the situation unfolds, he added.

According to Thomas Ole Nongonop, executive committee member for agriculture, livestock and fisheries in Baringo County, the county government did surveillance last week and found locusts on the top of the hills where there is no human settlement.

“But we were concerned that they will destroy the vegetation for livestock because herders feed their cattle,” Nongonop said. “This was our first encounter with desert locusts. Thursday last week, farmers really panicked when they saw the locusts. They [the locust swarms] keep rotating and it is hard to quantify the loss so far, but we have a standby airplane to spray.”

“The herders are very alert,” he continued. “We also have deployed agricultural extension officers on the ground to monitor. They use mobile phones to capture photos and inform us, then we take action.”

Activists from the group Root to Food have raised concerns about the safety of using pesticides to eradicate the locusts.

But Dr. Stephen Njoka, director of the Desert Locust Control Organization for Eastern Africa (DLCO-EA), an organization that coordinates the control of locusts in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somali, South Sudan, Sudan Tanzania and Uganda, said they are careful about the safety of pesticides they use.

“The insecticides we use are formulated to be ultra-low volume spraying, meaning that we are releasing very little doses for long distances. But it is still very effective applied at a half a liter per hectare. It affects only locusts, but is safe for human beings and the environment,” Njoka emphasized.

Image by Christiaan Kooyman, Wikipedia