Workers pick tea leaves at a plantation in Nandi Hills, in Kenya's highlands region west of capital Nairobi, November 5, 2014. REUTERS/Noor Khamis/File Photo

Kenya will send a team of agricultural experts to Brazil for research studies on how to control the armyworm, a pest that has continued to ravage agricultural crops countrywide resulting to losses worth millions of dollars.

Despite using high tech chemical pesticides in the past to mitigate the crisis, the government is seeking to power research and innovation as new tools to defeat the menace.

“To address the deteriorating food situation in Kenya, the government resolved that food scientists, soil experts among other agriculture and pesticide control experts visit Brazil to study how the country has been able to record success in the armyworm fight. The experts are drawn from different government agencies,” said Dr. Andrew Tuimur, the Chief Administrative Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture.

Data from the Ministry indicates that at least 200,000 acres of arable land have been affected by the Fall Army Worm (FAW) in 2017 alone, resulting to cumulative losses worth 2.4 billion US Dollars. Most of the farmers affected tried using chemical and traditional means to combat the worm, to little success.

Former Cabinet Secretary of Agriculture Willy Bett, while officiating the handing over of hormone based traps to the government by the Food Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2017, had earlier alluded to the lack of ethical business in the manufacturing of chemicals sector. He says that this is responsible for the failure of the pesticides that farmers frequently use.
“Each chemical manufacturer is presenting their type of chemical and saying it works against the Fall Army Worm (FAW), which has now become a commercial venture. We have restricted the sector and as a government, come up with some probable chemicals which we believe will help in fighting the worm.”

Greenish-brown in colour, with a thin stripe down the center and two orange stripes along each side, the armyworm, or true armyworm, is a common early season pest that can cause occasional losses in corn and frequently attacks in the spring. The army worm, feeds on more than 80 types of crops including sugarcane and sorghum but has a huge preference on maize.

The first infestation of the worm in Africa was reported in mid-April 1999, in Southern Ethiopia, spreading into the north the following month and into the Jubba Valley of Somalia in early May.

In West Africa, Liberia’s STAR radio reported in January 2009 that Zota District in Bong County had been invaded by African armyworms, which had consumed vegetation, polluted creeks and running water, and were moving toward Guinea and Sierra Leone. On January 28, 2009, the Liberian President Johnson Sirleaf declared a state of emergency to deal with the infestation of army worms in the country.

In January 2015, armyworm outbreaks were reported in Zimbabwe, and by November there were reports of similar outbreaks in Botswana.

In 2016, the fall armyworm invaded maize crops in Zambia. By January 3, 2017, about 90,000 hectares were affected according to reports released by the Zambian Government’s Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit.

In 2017, fall armyworm infestations were detected in more African countries such as Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Closer home, both Tanzania and Uganda have been hit by the worm in recent years, especially in areas along the Great Rift Valley. The Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI), estimates that the worm could cost 12 of the continents major maize producers up to 6.1 billion dollars in maize loss per year.

Brazil, a major South American agricultural producer, has on the other hand successfully fought the armyworm by going beyond chemical control and including biological control and resistant maize varieties. This move is however facing new challenges as the worm has started developing resistance to the BT maize variety used to mitigate them in Brazil.

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the agricultural sector is the highest contributor to the nation’s GDP at 21 percent as at 2017. Maize, the most affected crop, is Kenya’s staple food; used in the preparation of Ugali (Maize meal). The challenge of combating the armyworm therefore opens up endless opportunities for academic institution and the private sector to work hand in hand with the government to find new ways to help Kenya’s major foreign exchange earner survive its boom.