Farmers in parts of Western, Rift Valley and Nyanza are staring at losses after fall armyworm invaded their farms, destroying maize, sorghum and finger millet.
Mr Milton Odhiambo, a farmer from Nasewa in Matayos, Busia County, said he was shocked one day when he woke up and found his farm invaded by the fall armyworm.
“It is regrettable that there seems to be no immediate remedy to the problem and we are definitely in for huge losses,” Mr Odhiambo said.
“The cost of production has gone up sharply due to the high cost of farm inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides. At least 500 of my 1,045 acres under maize has been infested,” said Mr Odhiambo.
“I cannot afford pesticides and this is the case with most farmers here. But we get some reprieve whenever it rains. We have noticed that the worms disappear whenever it rains.”
Mr Ezekiel Waswani, a smallholder farmer from Butere constituency in Kakamega County, is also staring at losses after his three acres under maize were infested.
“All my efforts have gone to waste. They invaded my farm and in one day everything was gone. I think I am going to uproot the stems and hopefully start all over again,” said Mr Waswani.
The last time he witnessed such destruction was two decades ago, he said.
In Bungoma, the worst-hit areas are Bumula and Kanduyi where the worms have cleared acres of maize and beans.
Napier grass and trees have also not been spared by the destructive worms that are moving towards Mt Elgon, which forms part of the county’s food basket. Destruction of napier grass poses a threat to livestock production.
Mr Patrick Maende, also from Butere, said the pests have caused a lot of damage.
“I spent a lot of money buying farm inputs. All that has gone down the drain as I am not expecting any harvest. The fall armyworms have destroyed everything,” he said.
Most of the farmers interviewed accused the county and national governments of failing to address the problem of fall armyworm.
“We are staring at a major food crisis. We will need to plant afresh. However, the challenge is farmers do not have the money to buy fertilisers and seeds,” another farmer, Ms Clare Nafula, said.
“The two levels of government should address the problem of fall armyworm as a matter of urgency. If this is allowed to continue, a serious food crisis awaits us. Farmers should be given pesticides to deal with the destructive worms and be supported to plant afresh.”
The situation is the same in Migori County as the affected farmers ponder their next course of action. They said the armyworm first invaded Kuria East and Kuria West.
A spot check by The Standard established that the pests have spread to Uriri, Suna West, Rongo and Suna East.
Maize growers are the most affected.
Silvance Araja’s five-acre maize farm has been attacked by the worms.
“This is turning out to be a major crisis,” Araja said. “I have tried spraying the farm but the pesticide used does not seem to be working.”
Mr Julius Sangra, a farmer from Suna West, said the pests have cleared the maize planted two months ago on his three-acre farm.
Agriculture Chief Officer Elija Gambere said his department had procured insecticides and was hopeful that the problem will be resolved.
“It is unfortunate that several farms have been affected. However, our field officers are working closely with farmers to get rid of the pests,” he said.
It is not the first time that the region has been invaded by the pests. In 1999, the fall armyworm were reported in Somalia before they spread to Rwanda, Burundi then later Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania where thousands of hectares of crops were destroyed.
This prompted the Food Security Assessment Unit of the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to intervene, warning that the only way to prevent the moths from destroying crops was by breaking their cycle before they reach the destructive larva stage.
Simon Wesechere, the director of Rural Information and Agriculture Development Centre, an organisation that sensitises farmers in western Kenya on the best agriculture practices, pointed out that the worms are spreading fast in Busia, Bungoma, Vihiga, Kakamega and Trans Nzoia counties, yet there is limited knowledge on how to handle them.
“By now, extension officers would have been dispatched to help farmers in controlling the fall armyworm. However, there is little activity as farmers have been left on their own,” Wesechere said.
Busia acting Agriculture Executive Moses Osiawanje said the government moved with speed and sprayed the pests, after noticing them in Teso North, Teso South, Nambale, Butula and Matayos.
“The county is giving affected farmers free pesticides. We are also asking them to link up with ward agricultural officers whenever they spot the worms,” Osiawanje said.
“We have involved the national government in the fight against the pests, especially the department of crop protection whose officials have advised us on the right pesticides to use,” he said.
A report by FAO last year stated that climate change-induced pest dispersal poses a threat to food security.
The report noted that pests such as the African armyworm are often impossible to eradicate once they have established themselves in a new territory, and managing them is time-consuming and expensive.
The African armyworm is mainly found in the grasslands of Africa and Asia. Within Africa, it is mostly seen in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and South Africa.
They mainly attack cereals, grasses, barley, pearl millet, African millet, maize, oat, rice, sorghum, sugarcane, wheat and pasture grasses.
Since the late 60s, a key component of the management strategy of the worms has been outbreak forecasting run by national forecasting units.
Framers have also spotted Fall American Worms (FAWs) in the region but their scope of infestation is not as large as that of the African armyworm.
Endemic to North and South America, FAWs that first appeared in West Africa in January 2016, have hit the country just like many African countries, and researchers are still figuring out how they arrived on the continent.
They attack many cereal crops such as rice, sorghum, wheat, and maize, staple food to at least 200 million people on the continent.
Although they have never hit Kenya adversely, the FAWs infested Ethiopia’s East Wollega of Oromia region in 2017 where 1,250 hectares of maize were affected.
Around the same period, the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International released a report titled; Fall Armyworm: Impacts and Implications for Africa, which looked into the losses farmers in Africa face due to the worms.
“In Africa, the worms have the potential to cause maize yield losses ranging from 8.3 to 20.6 million tonnes per annum in 12 of Africa’s maize-producing countries, in the absence of any control methods,” the report said.
“This represents a range of 21-53 per cent of the annual production of maize averaged over a three-year period in these countries. The value of these losses is estimated at Sh285 billion-Sh713 billion).”
[Reporting by Robert Amalemba, Omelo Juliet and Anne Atieno]