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Farmer education and community action are key to combating the fall armyworm in Eastern Africa


With a trained community focal person who carries out field scouting and operates a fall armyworm (FAW) insect trap, the SMS-based reporting system allows each village to collect data, conduct data analysis, and make effective use of local communication channels to disseminate early warning information rapidly throughout the village, writes writes Mathew Abang.

In the past few decades, we have witnessed significant economic and political changes in Eastern Africa, which have substantially improved the living conditions of millions of rural communities, whose life is heavily dependent on agriculture. While appreciating this positive change, we are still striving to tackle existing and emerging challenges. Fall armyworm is one of these challenges, which is jeopardizing the lives of millions of people in the sub region.

As the Eastern Africa sub region grapples with drought and famine, it is facing the frightening risk of the fall armyworm, a dangerous transboundary insect pest, which further threatens the food security of smallholder farmers.

The worm is ravaging crops in over 38 countries across Africa as of end November 2017. It is native to the Tropical Americas but recently spread to Africa and was first reported in Central and West Africa in early 2016. It soon spread to southern Africa in late 2016 and by early 2017 was confirmed in Eastern Africa. The worm attacks more than 80 different plant species including maize, a major food staple in sub-Saharan Africa upon which more than 300 million people depend, and can cause significant yield losses if not well managed.

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The presence of the fall armyworm is now confirmed in all Eastern African countries except Djibouti. In Ethiopia, the pest has spread to most parts of the country where maize is an important staple and food security crop. As of November 2017, the pest was present in 411 (51 percent) of the 800 districts in Ethiopia. In Kenya, FAW has been reported in 40 out of the 47 counties (85 percent) in the country, while presence of the pest is confirmed in 115 districts out of the 144 districts (80 percent) in Uganda. In Rwanda, the pest has infested all the 30 districts of the country (100 percent).

The sudden appearance, rapid spread, potentially destructive nature, and limited knowledge of the worm is a concern among farmers, national governments and their development partners. As part of the national emergency response in 2017, governments spent millions of dollars on the use of pesticides to support farmers in controlling the pest. However, fall armyworm is here to stay. It is unlikely that governments and farmers will be able to spend huge sums of money on pesticides every cropping season to control the pest.

While individual control options may lead to some increases in crop yields, no single control measure has proved to be completely effective. Chemical control of the worm is generally inappropriate in subsistence farming systems. This is due to the high cost of pesticides, high risk of pesticide resistance, and the impact on health and environment. Pesticide application equipment and skills that are necessary for chemical control of this worm are also hardly unavailable or affordable. For instance, testimonies from some farmers indicate that repeated pesticide applications were not effective against the pest.

In light of this, governments need to recognize the draw-backs of promoting practices that are not adapted to the specific conditions and needs of farmers at the local (village) level. To ensure a high level of adoption of skills and technologies, governments should employ a bottom-up, community-based integrated fall armyworm management (CIFAM) approach, which empowers farmers with the knowledge and skills they need to manage the pest. The integrated approach seeks to improve farmers’ practices in order to generate higher profits while ensuring environmental quality and community health. It combines the benefits of community-based early warning and the Farmer Field School approach promoted by FAO and many organizations worldwide as a platform for farmers to learn, experiment and exchange on important topics such as the management of fall armyworm.

Basically the CIFAM involves two major interventions: a mobile phone Short Message Service (SMS)-based monitoring and early warning system as well as the strengthening or establishment of Field Schools for FAW management.

With a trained community focal person who carries out field scouting and operates a FAW insect trap, the SMS-based reporting system allows each village to collect data, conduct data analysis, and make effective use of local communication channels to disseminate early warning information rapidly throughout the village. The system operates in a very simplified way.

The data collected by farmers on the worm is transmitted to an SMS server (national gateway) with a predefined short number, where the data can be assembled and processed for national level decision-making. Ultimately, the data could become part of a global database or repository for continent–wide action considering that this dangerous transboundary pest does not respect national borders. FAO has already developed a mobile application called FAMEWS (which stands for Fall Armyworm Monitoring and Early Warning System) for data collection and transmission. Community focal persons and farmers will be trained extensively in the use of this application. CIFAM alerts farmers to scout their fields regularly to detect the insect’s eggs and young larvae (worms) and to monitor their fields using insect traps, which enables early detection of the insect and timely control actions to prevent crop loss.

Field Schools (FSs) should form an important part of community based fall armyworm monitoring, early warning and management. Integrated FAW management skills and concepts are best learned, practiced, and debated in the field. The field is the best teacher. Establishing and running of field schools however requires the development of a sound curriculum, which describes the important steps to follow from the beginning to the end of a cropping season to carry out an integrated and sustainable management of the fall armyworm through learning in the field school.

FAO has developed a curriculum for management of FAW in maize to be delivered through the Field School. The curriculum was developed based on four practical principles: (1) grow a healthy crop, (2) conserve natural enemies, (3) observe fields regularly, and (4) support farmers to become experts at managing fall armyworm. FAO has also provided training of trainers (ToT) to national plant protection and extension staff to effectively cascade the knowledge and skills on the management of the fall armyworm to the local level.

Integration of community-based monitoring and early warning system with experiential learning through Field Schools would offer better results and yield greater impact in the management of fall armyworm. Through community participation, this approach builds local capacities and ensures community ownership for the management of the worm. Adoption of CIFAM will also help build technical capacities within extension services and village communities to ensure that farmers are able to effectively implement fall armyworm management sustainably in their fields.

Research and development initiatives on fall armyworm should, therefore, adopt a participatory community-based approach throughout the project life cycle to ensure that the management of fall armyworm is effective, sustainable and cost effective.

Ed.’s Note: Mathew Abang (PhD) is the Crop Production Officer at the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Sub Regional Office for Eastern Africa. The article is provided to The Reporter by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Sub Regional Office for Eastern Africa (SFE). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter.

Farmer education and community action are key to combating the fall armyworm in Eastern Africa


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