Pain as erratic rains, armyworm eat deep into food production

The total acreage of land invaded by the armyworm in Kenya accounts for 11 per cent of the total land on which maize is cultivated in the country. FILE PHOTO | NMG
The total acreage of land invaded by the armyworm in Kenya accounts for 11 per cent of the total land on which maize is cultivated in the country. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

For Eliza Arwan, staying days without a meal or water is nothing new. But things are getting worse for the 40-year-old mother of six, who rarely sees her husband and relies on menial jobs at the Segera Ranch to earn Sh150 a day.

The problem is always either the high cost of food or a serious scarcity at Poise, her village located some 40 kilometres from Nanyuki town in Laikipia County.

“We stay hungry if I don’t earn. Here a kilo of sugar retails at Sh200 and a kilo of maize flour at Sh150,” says Ms Arwan, whose sunken eyes, ashy face and cracked lips tell of her suffering.

The drought-parched ground beneath her feet portrays a locality that hardly receives rainfall and when it does, it is barely sufficient to grow crops and rear livestock.

Ms Arwan and her family are among some 3.4 million Kenyans on the brink of starvation following failed rains, invasion of the fall armyworm and high food prices.

In its latest report, the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA) estimates that of the 3.4 million facing starvation, 2.6 million are experiencing “crisis” levels while an estimated 800,000 are in “stressed” levels with the likelihood of the latter situation deteriorating into a crisis sooner rather than later.

Already, 500,000 of the 2.6 million clustered under “crisis” are in “emergency” level which means they are in dire need of humanitarian aid.

In the report that assessed the impact of the 2017 March-May long rains in arid and semi-arid (Asal) counties, the agency says the figure represents a significant increase on the 2.6 million identified by the 2016 short-rains survey released in February.

Invasion of the fall armyworm in mid-January wreaked havoc in the country’s bread basket, aggravating a cereal shortage that has seen prices shoot up. Cereals are Kenya’s staple food.

Unlike the normal army worms, the fall army worms — which mainly attack maize — feed day and night, are most active during early morning hours and late evening, damaging plants in patches.

Food experts have warned East African economies to brace themselves as the fall armyworm is not going anywhere any time soon.

Data from the Ministry of Agriculture shows more than 250,000 hectares of farmland have been affected in the food basket counties of Uasin Gishu that has lost (8,000 ha), Trans-Nzoia (10,000 ha), Bungoma (31,600 ha), Nandi (7,000 ha) and Nakuru (48,969 ha).

The total acreage of land invaded by the worm in Kenya accounts for 11 per cent of the total land on which maize is cultivated in the country.

In 2016, the short rain crop planted in October failed which resulted in a rally of flour prices with the cost of a 2Kg packet hitting a record Sh153, compelling the government to intervene through a subsidy programme that lowered it to Sh90.

“The combination of fall Armyworm infestations and erratic long rains in the high and medium-rainfall areas, particularly in the North Rift, is likely to result in a 20-30 per cent drop in long rains maize crop production in October. This will reduce supply and keep prices high until [next] January,” said the NDMA report.

Late in August, the weatherman warned that the October-December short rains will cease at a critical stage when the maize crop will be flowering, signalling fresh food shortage.

The Kenya Meteorological Department (KMD), in its outlook for the October-November-December, projects short rains in the North Rift counties in the second week of October to the second week of December.

“The early cessation expected in some agricultural areas is likely to interfere with crop development before maturing. Farmers are therefore advised to make good use of the rains to maximise crop production,” said Peter Ambenje, the KMD Director.

Growers have expressed concern that the stoppage of rains in the middle of December will have a negative impact on development of grains in the short-rain crop, which normally supplements harvests from the main season.

Most pastoral counties experienced a second consecutive poor rainfall season, while Isiolo and Tana River experienced a third, according to the NMDA report on impact of the 2017 March-May long rains in Asals.

The study used the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a global standard for classifying the severity of food insecurity.

The population was clustered into four categories ranging from minimal effect, stressed, crisis and finally catastrophe/famine.

Areas falling under IPC Phase 1 are those where food insecurity is minimal, those in IPC Phase 2 have stressed resources while those in IPC Phase 3 are at crisis level. IPC Phase 4 are areas where the population is facing famine and require emergency humanitarian assistance.

The counties classified in IPC Phase 3 are Turkana, Marsabit, West Pokot, Samburu, Isiolo and Lamu, as well as parts of Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, Baringo, Laikipia, Kilifi and Kwale.

Households under this phase are consuming one to two meals a day, consisting mainly of cereals and pulses and fewer of the other food groups less frequently.

“In the absence of adequate cross sectoral interventions, more areas and households in these counties are expected to fall into IPC Phase 3 by October 2017,” warns the report.

An estimated 800,000 Kenyans fall under IPC Phase 2 with majority of the population situated in parts of the south-east and coastal marginal agricultural areas. They are also in areas such as Kajiado, parts of Baringo and Narok, and parts of Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, Tana River and Marsabit.

It is anticipated that more people in IPC Phase 2 will fall into the crisis category between the months of August and October.

Kenya’s plight has been compounded by the difficulties in the wider region with maize production in Tanzania and Uganda between May 2016 and March 2017 falling below normal. This led to them shutting their borders for exports leaving Kenya to find solutions for its own food crisis.