Dr Lusike Waswila at Mutwota's farm. [Japheth Makau]

Welcomed by green rows of maize—an indication of a bumper harvest in Maikua village, Kithangaini location, Mwala constituency, Machakos County, which is a dry area—at Josephat Mutwota's farm, one couldn’t believe he was at the heart of Ukambani. This success has been achieved through a project by the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (Kalro) training e-farmers in the area on good agricultural practices and the management of the fall armyworm.
Mutwota, who is the acting chairperson of Kyeni Self Help Group, says for the first time in many years, he is expecting a good harvest from his three acres of maize farm. “I am expecting to harvest at least 15 bags of maize from an acre. This will be a first for me because normally, I get five or fewer bags of maize due to poor rains,” he said.
He grows maize and pigeon peas, and he said this year's maize crop has been productive because there was no attack from the fall armyworm unlike in the past seasons. He has planted the OKAMES (KDH-414) maize variety that is suitable for the area, and the rains were good, so they are expecting a bumper harvest.
He also attributed the good harvest to training on proper agricultural practices and pest management that farmers from the group have received from KALRO researchers. Mutwota said they have been trained on scouting and monitoring pests in their farms, and the proper use of pesticides to ensure food safety. “This also ensures that they do not spray pesticides and kill other useful insects in the soil and the environment. We have also been trained on the importance of spacing of crops and crop rotation,” he said, adding that farmers should also ensure they plant using certified seeds. 
“This year, there will be no shortage of maize in Ukambani because most farmers will have a good harvest,” Mutwota said.
According to Dr Muo Kasina, a pest management specialist with Kalro, when the FAW invaded Kenya in 2017, there was a major outcry from farmers on how to manage the pest. “This is because previously, there was no major form of pest management particularly pesticide use for maize. So when the pest came in, it was new, resistant to various insecticides, and it attacked maize at a time when maize farmers were not experienced in managing pests,” he explained.
To help farmers cope with the problem of the Fall Army Worm, researchers from 16 African countries in partnership with the Korean Government came together in 2022 to develop an African-wide programme on the management of the pest using sustainable methods. “Sustainable methods contribute to food security because maize is one of the food and nutrition security crops that Kenyans and Africa depend on,” he said. 

Josphat Mutwota inspecting his maize. [Japheth Makau]

Kasina said they brought the programme to Masii, Machakos County, in March 2023, armed with a raft of measures that can help farmers cope with the problem and reduce infestation. “Our target was not to control or eliminate the insect but to empower farmers with information that they can use to lower infestation levels,” said Kasina. He said when they started in 2020 across the southeastern areas, farmers were getting up to 50 percent yields even with control measures. “But in 2023, farmers are now projecting good yields. This is because we have trained them to appreciate that insects are animals like human beings and they can be managed well. Reducing infestation is the most important thing and you can only do this if you understand how the insect behaves,” he explained.
The entomologist added that they trained farmers on how to identify the insects, differentiate different stages of the insects, and know when to apply appropriate measures. “We have been able to use biological control measures that are available in the market and farmers can afford to buy. If we do not see any major gain, then we use insecticides. Up to three uses of insecticides are possible with proper management, and you can get good yields,” said Kasina.
Besides that, farmers have also been trained on early land preparation, soil testing to ensure the soil is fertile enough to give good yields as you control the FAW. This is in addition to amendment of the soil by liming and using appropriate fertilizer methods. He added when they started with farmers in 2020, farmers from Machakos, Kitui, Makueni, Taita Taveta, and Kilifi counties were using five to seven sprays in a season to control the pest. 

“Even after the many sprays, the farmers would still report an invasion of the pest. This was not effective and farmers were getting desperate. With the training, pesticide use has dropped down. This is related to the timing of application, and proper application because previously farmers were not applying pesticides in maize. We have been able to show farmers target application of pesticides because, for instance, you do not apply pesticide in maize the way to apply in tomatoes,” he explained.
The researcher noted that there has been some good positive move towards appropriate management of the FAW, seven years since the pest was first reported in Kenya. “Farmers have been properly trained on how to manage the pest,” he concluded.
Dr Lusike Wasilwa, KALRO Director of Crop Systems, said the national research organization in partnership with the Korea-Africa Food and Agriculture Cooperation Initiative (KAFACI) have empowered farmers through the integrated management of the fall armyworm to deal with the invasive pests. She said the integrated pest management offers a more sustainable cost-effective and environmentally friendly approach to FAW control by incorporating a range of strategies and focusing on long-term prevention and reduction of pests’ population. “Thanks to empowerment, good rains, and proper agricultural practices farmers from Masii are expecting a bumper maize harvest. Our researchers have been deploying different biological controls to manage pests like fall armyworm that is devastating,” said Wasilwa.

“Sometimes even with different spray regimes, we're still losing about 50 percent. So the pesticides in our agricultural systems, in our soils and waters are a no-no. To be able to help the farmers, we're using biological controls to reduce the incidences of the fall armyworms down to 10-20 percent and eventually to 100 percent,” she said. She noted that since the FAW was first reported in Kenya in 2017, it has been devastating, causing up to 100 percent yield losses. “We want to ensure that farmers do not have to use any pesticides to manage FAW. We are trying to promote good, clean production practices, and ensure that whatever we do contributes to food and feed safety,” Wasilwa added.

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