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Fighting an army of pests

Fighting an army of pests

Habtamu Tsegaye is a Crop Value Chain Advisor with Feed the Future Value Chain Activity, a project backed and financed by the USAID across the agricultural sector. He has been working with Feed the Future for almost five years. From 2017 onwards, he has been closely working on the Fall Armyworm, a new pest, infesting crops. According to Habtamu, maize is the predominant crop endangered by Fall Armyworm posing a food security challenge for Ethiopia. Currently, Feed the Future has finalized the Fall Armyworm Monitoring, Early Warning and Reporting System program in Ethiopia, and the government is taking over this two and a half year-long activity. Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter has sat down with Habtamu to learn more about the impacts of the pest, the early warning and monitoring systems, and its potential in controlling Fall armyworm in cases of outbreaks. Excerpts:

The Reporter: The Fall Armyworm was first detected in March of 2017, in Ethiopia. Since then, the pest has remained, infesting mostly maize crop. What is the current situation?

Habtamu Tsegaye: When first identified in 2017, we did not know much about the nature of the pest. We sought the expertise of international communities and supported the Ethiopian government response. We brought in technical experts from the US and other countries. We were in urgent need of knowing how to manage the pest and control the infestation. Once we understood how to tackle it, we have consulted with stakeholders on how we could devise mechanisms to fend of the impacts. We have identified four intervention mechanisms. One is how to create capacity among the local communities, working with agricultural extension workers. Concerning creating awareness, in our second approach, we devised and supported a system to create mass public awareness through a radio programme. The third intervention was supporting the establishment of the pest monitoring and Early warning system.

Tell us a bit about how the monitoring system works?

It was essential to have such a system when you don't know it infests or how it migrates. The pilot monitoring project has involved 80 villages of eight districts in four affected regions and the ICT based early warning and monitoring system is a community-based platform so that they can get all the required information through their mobile phones The system is established to provide early warning information using an ICT based and full engagement of the farming communities. Currently, the early warning and monitoring system has been effectively working and has now been handed over to the government. The Ministry of Agriculture is running the system.

The fourth intervention is support for the introduction of spray service providers. . Due to lack of judicious and sound application in utilizing chemicals, it is advised to train professional spray service providers of farmers as part of the pest controlling technique to properly apply chemicals. Pesticides play a significant role and we have trained farmers on how they use chemicals when needs arise. In the process, we have worked with various stakeholders, hired consultants and worked closely with the Ministry of Agriculture along with district and zonal admirations. To ensure sustainability of the programs we worked in partnership with the government and NGOs. For instance, for the mass awareness campaign, we work in partnership with Farm Radio International. Airing across four regions, it has broadcasted more than 20 programs for the community. Our assessment indicated that through the radio campaign some four million farmers received the necessary information to tackle the infestation. The early monitoring system has helped us to generate the necessary information to provide alerts and early warning information to the farming communities.. Currently, the infestation is declining, farming communities have well understood the pest’s biology, pest management options, and the climatic conditions was not also favorable to the pest. Of course, there are irregularities. We could say the level of invasion or the infestation has been under control now. But we don't know when it will reoccur. There is a potential for an unexpected outbreak. We don't know when. The good thing is that we have a monitoring system in place that can easily detect and alert at the early stages.

When we talk about the impacts of fall armyworm, earlier projections on crop losses and damages were alarming. Maize producing regions would likely lose 30 to 50 percent of their yields. What does the overall assessment indicate?

Frankly, this is one of the challenging issues we have. There is no commonly agreed-upon consensus with regards to the economic impacts the pest causes. For the first year, I remember that from the filed observations we had conducted, the infestation was enormous, but I can't give you numbers at this moment. The overall understanding is that the damage is slowing down, but we need to be cautious of recurrence. The farmers know how to scout. The communities know how to control the pest culturally. Hence, the potential damages are not as dreadful as expected.

Is it safe to say that the government was overwhelmingly occupied with dealing with Deseret Locusts, forcing it to shift its priorities? Did the government neglect the potential impacts of fall armyworm?

I am not familiar with the locust infestation situation. I would tell you, as a citizen, what I feel. I would say in terms of priority, the pest infestation level recorded for the Fall Armyworm is lower compared to the desert locust situation. Hence, prioritizing locust and dealing with it requires serious efforts. There is no question about that. Similarly, the Fall Armyworm is still present and the system we have created helps to monitor and control potential outbreaks. The threat from Fall Armyworm is not as huge, compared to the locusts at this time.  

Experts often say that the pests have become a citizen, and will stay forever. Is that still the case in Ethiopia?

The Fall Armyworm is here to stay. It is not going to go away. It came to live with us, and it is difficult to exterminate the entire generation of the pest. However, we can manage and control the hatching and spread of the insect. For instance, initially, Fall Armyworm was voracious, and the damage it caused on crops was enormous. We need further studies and research to know more about its yield and economic loss effects. The African Fall Armyworm has been with us for a longer time. However, due to the knowledge and practice gained in managing the pest the damages and the infestation is not that critical.

Could we expect another round of generation of fall armyworm invasion?

It has already invaded and infested Ethiopia. It has now familiarized itself with the natural environments of the country. I don’t think we would see a new generation of the pest migrating to Ethiopia. The trick is on how we can manage the existing insect. At any given time, it might strike and infest crops. For that, a well-functioning early warning system and monitoring is crucial.

After two and a half years working on fall armyworm, the project was transferred to the government. Does that mean the government has equally created a platform that incorporates the project?

The design plan of the intervention was a two and a half year support program that Feed the Future has provided. We have achieved what we have planned to do during that time. I think the Ministry of Agriculture will follow and build upon the system. We are leaving after supporting the establishment of a dependable system behind it. We will still provide support on for the spray service providers’ intervention.

Could you monetize the support activities Feed the Future has provided in fighting the fall armyworm?

We have invested some USD one million during the project period. Half a million of that money went to support spray service providers. In addition to that, another USD 250,000 was spent on mass awareness campaigns. The remaining sum, USD 250,000, was invested in creating an early warning system and monitoring.