DOREEN NAWA, Lusaka
JERRY Ng’andu, 53, a small-scale farmer of Shibuyunji district, has lived in the area for over 25 years and his livelihood solely depends on farming.
He cultivates about three acres of land and plants mainly maize and some beans for both consumption and sale.
But 2016 is one year he would want to forget. However, he has no choice but to remember it, as what happened last year might happen again this year, or next year.
This is because half of his maize field was attacked by the fall armyworms.
“I relocated from Southern Province over 25 years ago and I never had challenges in farming like I experienced last farming season,” he says. “The thought of having the [fall] armyworms again is one I dread. I cannot imagine the loss.”
For Mr Ng’andu, the reappearance of the pests will pose a threat on food security.
“Last year, we had the pests and it affected my yield. I can’t imagine going through the same experience again this farming season,” he says. “During a normal farming season, I harvest about 250 bags [50kg] of maize but last season I only managed to harvest 150 bags.”
Mr Ng’andu laments that last year’s mitigation process by Government to cushion the impact of armyworms was not properly handled.
“They are giving a 100ml bottle of the pesticide to be shared among four farmers regardless of the size of the farm. That 25ml was only enough for one acre and I have three acres,” he says. “There was also lack of guidance on how the pesticide was to be administered.”
For this farming season, Mr Ng’andu suggests that Government distributes the pesticide according to the size of the land being cultivated by the farmers.
“As it stands, we are conflicted because we don’t want the army worms to ravage our fields yet we can’t afford not to plant because our livelihood depends on farming,” he says.
Mr Ng’andu is not in a unique position.
Saliya Mizinga, 50, a widow who is looking after seven of her eight children and has lived in Shibuyunji district for over 20 years likens the attack to the much talked about pestilence in the Bible.
She simply calls it a horror.
“The invasion by this maize pest is occurring for the first time and all possible mitigation factors seem not to work,” she says. “Last year, the situation was so desperate we used surf, washing powder, boom paste and ashes as pesticides. So this year, we need Government to come to our aid and give us pesticides.”
Ms Mizinga says she can’t afford to buy pesticides this season because all the money she realised from the sale of her last harvest went towards buying farming inputs.
The fall armyworm, a recent interloper in Africa, widely prevalent in the Americas, attacks more than 80 different plant species, including maize.
The Zambia Agriculture Research Institute (ZARI) now says the army worms are here to stay.
“Farmers should take the cost of fighting the worm into account, when doing their annual planning,” ZARI chief agricultural research officer Mweshi Mukanga says. “Fall armyworm is here to stay and we have to find sustainable means of managing this.”
The anticipated return of the fall armyworms again is due to Zambia’s suitable weather patterns of hot, humid, wet climatic conditions which make it easier for this pest to breed.
“This pest cannot survive in cold climatic conditions like most western countries,” Dr Mukanga says.
But unlike commercial farmers that budget for chemicals too, small-scale farmers usually do not do so and end up having the most devastating effects of the pest.
“It is time that small-scale farmers are encouraged to not only use the e-vouchers for seed and fertilisers but to procure chemicals too for various diseases and pest that may attack their crops,” he says.
Government is already on course to help sensitise farmers on the possible outbreak of armyworms during the 2017/2018 farming season.
But because of the growing numbers of small scale farmers, government may not be able to distribute the free pesticides to all of them.
Instead, a list of the recommended pesticides will be sent to all strategic places through the various agro-chemical companies for the small scale farmers to access and buy.
Among the pesticides that can be used to control the fall armyworms are Coragen, Belt, Ampligo, Proclaim, Sorba and Spitfire.
Agricultural entomologist Phillip Nkunika says tackling the fall armyworm pest and avoiding economic hardships for small-scale farmers requires quick and co-ordinated action, a massive awareness campaign, scientific innovation and multi-institutional collaboration.
“We must learn to live with the realities of climate change. This has triggered major changes in geographical distribution and population dynamics of insect pests and efficacy of crop protection technologies,” Professor Nkunika says.
“We cannot eliminate the pest, but we can provide support to farmers and provide options to manage their crops against the fall armyworm.”
The female fall armyworm can lay up to 1,000 eggs at a time and can produce multiple generations very quickly without pause in tropical environments.
Last year, the fall armyworms nearly wiped out crop production in the southern Africa region but Zambia managed to reap 3.6 million tonnes of maize, up from 2.8 million the previous year.
The fall armyworm has been reported in all countries in southern Africa except Lesotho and the island States, and most of the countries in eastern Africa, including Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.
It has also been reported in several countries in west and central Africa, including Benin, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, and the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe.
It is not yet clear how the pest got to the African continent or how it will adapt.
“We just don’t know how far this could go. Fall armyworm is a very recently introduced pest in Africa and even the experts are unsure what its long-term impact will be,” Prof Nkunika says.
“We need to work together as scientists to create national plant protection strategies. We should also work with farmers to control the level of damage on their farms. For the longer-term, though, only a truly collaborative effort between international and national agencies can provide a solution.”
But Small Scale Farmers Union general secretary Frank Kayula says as Zambia and other affected countries rush to implement various measures to contain the army worms, it is important to keep farmers in mind.
“As we get to find solutions, we need answers to such questions, Can farmers afford these solutions? Do farmers know enough about suggested management practices and how to implement them on their farms?” Dr Kayula says.
“What happened last season was embarrassing; we need farmers to be told on time on what to do instead of being reactive when the situation is worse.”