Ideas & Debate

Protecting food security against locust invasion


Desert locusts are the most migratory pests and pose the biggest risk to croplands. FILE PHOTO | NMG

While the Covid-19 pandemic continues to upset global economies, Kenya faces multiple emergencies from the novel virus, flooding that has destroyed over 10,000 hectares of cropland to the worst desert locust invasion in 70 years.

The swarms originated from the Middle East and spread into the Horn of Africa and Asia aided by winds. The world’s deadliest pests first crossed into the country on December, 28, 2019 from neighbouring Ethiopia and Somalia.

Desert locusts are the most migratory pests and pose the biggest risk to croplands. One square-kilometre of a swarm has about 40 million locusts, which eat the same amount of food in one day as about 35,000 people. Large swarms witnessed in Kenya in late January covering 2,400 square kilometres can consume 1.8 million metric tonnes of vegetation daily, equivalent to enough food for 81 million people, nearly double Kenya’s population. These creatures can multiply 20-fold every three months and once they develop wings, they can fly up to cover 150km a day.

Preliminary estimates early last month indicated that the swarms had flattened about 175,000 hectares of crop and pastureland upsetting livelihoods of nearly 164,000 households.

Fortunately, the government’s earliest response mechanism slowed their movement, largely confining them to agropastoral dry lands. Also, the invasion found most croplands harvested, reducing exposure to widespread food damage except for Mount Kenya counties and Makueni whose farmlands were partly impacted.

By late February, the locust swarms had infested 28 counties. Through a multi-agency response coordinated by the Ministry of Agriculture and including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Bank, the Desert Locust Control Organization and other development partners; the swarms have now been contained to just about four counties – Isiolo, Turkana, Samburu and Marsabit.

Aerial and ground spraying is ongoing as a control measure for the flying swarms and the hatched ones respectively, albeit as at a slower pace due to heavy rains and Covid-19 related movement restrictions.

Surveillance helicopters have been deployed to monitor and map the breeding sites using the eLocust3m app that has been developed by FAO in partnership with Plant Village. The mapping of hatching sites is important because it also coincides with the planting season. Rain makes the sandy soil moist, which is conducive for the female desert locust to lay eggs to hatch.

In the Desert Locust lifecycle, the hopper stage (between hatching and developing wings), is their most voracious feeding time, a great threat on our food security if they find crops at germination stage. As we race against time to flush them out, our target is to fully manage the situation by July 2020.

Kenya has prioritised a multi-phased approach to managing the crisis built around three pillars – surveillance and control, food security and livelihood restoration and, early warning and preparedness. Under surveillance and control pillar, the ministry has deployed both ground and aerial machinery.

This includes vehicle mounted with sprayers and hand-held sprayers, as well as aircraft and personnel training. The goal here is to control the population of locusts. Six control bases have been established in Wajir, Isiolo, Turkana, Marsabit, Garissa and Masinga, each with a standby aircraft to enable coordinated interventions in the wider affected regions.

Kenya has throughout this exercise worked with various multilateral agencies, each with its own set of comparative advantage and expertise. FAO is leading immediate control operations including spray and surveillance campaigns while the World Bank is our funding and technical support partner especially around restoring livelihoods.

FAO is supporting Kenya in Desert Locust control measures in different capacities including hiring of choppers, spray aircrafts, purchasing of vehicles and vehicle mounted sprayers, procurement of pesticides and personal protective equipment, training of youth from the National Youth Service to help with on-the ground spraying, as well as capacity building of the national and county governments .

The World Bank is our funding and technical support partner especially around restoring livelihoods with an initial emergency package of $13.7 million. The World Bank has approved a further $43 million support to the Ministry to help us in continued surveillance and control measures, enhance early warning, preparedness and capacity to deal with possible future attacks and in our efforts to restore farm and livestock productivity in 12 most affected counties.

Kenya Red Cross is currently conducting an impact assessment study to determine the extent of damage in crops, pastures, environment and natural resources. Drones will be used in this exercise. The findings will then provide a comprehensive picture and guide recovery plan and livelihood restoration.

Technology has played a big role. A mobile phone app, eLocust3, is in use and allows field officers to record data and upload pictures in real-time whenever they spot locusts.

This information then feeds into a central online repository, from where daily updates are shared with ministry officials and officers manning control bases, pinpointing locust location coordinates, tracking movements and enabling targeted spraying.

Lastly, the early warning and preparedness phase to be led by the Ministry of Agriculture and supported by the World Bank is geared towards preventing future widespread locust outbreaks by strengthening local capacity for surveillance and early warning and response.

The writer is CS, Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Co-operatives.