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How NYS battled to eradicate desert locust infestation

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An NYS worker sprays pesticides in Turkana County on June 7, 2020. PHOTO | AFP

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Summary

  • Two professionals working with the Ministry of Agriculture were trained by the UN agency on the use of eLocust3g.
  • A new unit was recently established at the University of Nairobi to support the control, elimination, and eradication of infectious diseases in Eastern and Central Africa.

In 2020, Kenya reported its first case of desert locust infestation in the arid and semi-arid areas of Wajir, Garissa, Baringo, Marsabit, among other counties.

The attack aftermath was an economic and social impact on pastoralist communities’ crops and pastures, which were destroyed on a grand scale.

A sigh of relief, however, appeared last year when the Kenyan Government in partnership with the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) rolled out ground surveillance and aerial spraying in three counties of Wajir, Mandera and Marsabit to contain swarms of locusts.

The measure controlled further spread of the swarms to unaffected areas, saving farmers millions in livestock and crop losses, which had already been witnessed in the affected areas.

Data from Food Security and Nutrition Working Group’s (FSNWG) East Africa Regional Desert Locust Impact Monitoring round two report showed that swarm attacks fell from 40 percent in June/July to 23 percent between October and December last year.

Also, crop losses dropped to 16 percent from 28 percent in the period. Equally, livestock rearing homes also reported a 23 percent decline in rangeland invasions to 32 percent. Losses from the invasion dropped from 44 percent to 24 percent.

But, the percentage of destruction was still high, beyond the Government’s threshold of zero.

So Kenya embarked on a partnership with FAO to train 500 National Youth Services (NYS) members, 140 county extension officers, 696 community scouts, 60 county agricultural officers as well as 25 environment, health and safety experts on control management.

“500 National Youth Service people and 20 NYS supervisors underwent training, including Sergeant Brian Odhiambo, who later oversaw a group of 200 trained service people deployed on desert locust control operations,” FAO says.

“The terrain in the remote parts of semi-arid northern Kenya is extremely rugged and getting around is a challenge. It was no easy task. The Covid-19 pandemic restrictions in place at the time made operations in these remote and rugged regions of the country much more challenging.”

Two professionals working with the Ministry of Agriculture were also trained by the UN agency on the use of eLocust3g, FAO’s handheld GPS-based data recording and transmission device designed for use in difficult and remote locations where monitoring is a challenge and there is no network.

According to FAO, the device consists of a robust GPS and custom-designed software, which enables those on the ground to gather standard data and transfer it via satellite from the field to the regional locust command centre in Lewa in northern Kenya.

The coordinates of sighted locusts are mapped and shared in real-time with air and ground-based locust control teams for targeting.

“We would wake up at around 5.30 am, by 6.30 am we were already out on the road. Other teams on the ground would share information on where the swarms are, how large they are, and how many swarms are in that area. So we would head towards that specific location, knowing how far we can go per day,” says Sergeant Odhiambo, who believes that if they had not stepped in, destruction would have been much worse.

“Our service people who went out gave 100 percent to the work. The feedback from the villagers and the government is always encouraging. Such encouragement and the impact of services we give to the community keeps us going,” Sergeant Odhiambo states.

Thanks to the effort of Sergeant Odhiambo and his team, the country is now free of desert locusts.

“In just over a year, the country has built a strong institutional capacity to tackle future resurgences and, in addition to the training of young professionals, a desert locust monitoring command centre was established with FAO’s support,” Sergeant Odhiambo notes.

“If it wasn't for the various partnerships, this whole success story would not have been realised.”

Sergeant Odhiambo is now helping to train more NYS volunteers in locust management best practices.

“I teach them to understand why this desert locust needs to be controlled and how to control them,” he says.

The eradication comes as a reprieve to thousands of Asal residents who were facing hunger amid prolonged dry periods due to poor performance of the long rain season between March and May this year.

Data from the Climate Hazards Group InfraRed Precipitation with Station data (CHIRPS), a global rainfall database, showed that cumulative rainfall across the eastern and central parts of the country was below average, ranging from 50-80 percent of average.

Only last month, the Kenya Food Security Steering Group (KFSG) 2021 Long Rains Season Assessment Report showed that two in ten (21 percent) of pastoral communities were in need of food assistance in 13 counties such as Turkana, Wajir, Mandera, Isiolo and Kajiado.

Out of these, Turkana County led with the number of those affected (40 percent) followed by Wajir (25 percent) with Mandera and Garissa both recording 20 percent.

This led President Uhuru Kenyatta to declare the ongoing drought affecting these areas a national disaster after meeting local leaders at State House Nairobi last month.

Among 85 leaders from the arid and semi-arid lands (Asal) who met with the President were five governors, Cabinet secretaries, chief administrative secretaries, principal secretaries, MPs and senators.

“The President has instructed the National Treasury and the Ministry of Interior to spearhead government efforts to assist affected households including water and relief food distribution as well as livestock update,” Kanze Dena Mararo, the President’s spokesperson, said last week in a statement.

Asal regions have also had to contend with animal viruses such as the Rift Valley fever (RVF) and East Coast Fever that saw tens of people die. Many animals also perished.

A new unit was recently established at the University of Nairobi to support the control, elimination, and eradication of infectious diseases in Eastern and Central Africa.

The 2020 Center for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis (CEMA) sought to enhance data-driven decision-making to improve health in Kenya and in Africa.

Cabinet Secretary for Education Prof George Magoha hailed the launch of CEMA saying research plays a significant role in influencing policy.

Prof Magoha further noted that the training arm of CEMA under the University of Nairobi should be keen to mentor the next generation of young researchers through training.

“Genuine data is power and knowledge. Managing a public health emergency of such proportions calls for a lot of sobriety in making rapid and meaningful decisions. We must employ a multidisciplinary approach in tackling the pandemic using relevant data to make effective decisions,” said Prof Magoha.

“Such decisions must be supported by locally relevant data. The data should of necessity be generated locally by the scientists.”

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