How Rural Malawi Farmers are Dealing with Fall armyworm in Absence of Pesticide
By Deogracias Benjamin Kalima
MALAWI — The prolonged dry spell which hit most parts of Malawi in the past few weeks is gradually coming to an end. While there has been rainfall in parts of the country, places like the lower Shire region comprising of Chikwawa and Nsanje districts, are yet to recover from the dry spell.
For areas that survived the dry spell, the fall armyworms and the devastation caused by the pests are there for all to see. So far, the pests have affected 15 of the 28 administrative districts translating to 350,000 hectares of maize crop — nearly half of the total of Malawi’s farmland.
Fall armyworm which is believed to have originated from the state of Florida, United States of America, has attacked most east and southern African countries including Malawi.
Fall armyworms are highly invasive species resistant to commonly used pesticides. They are known to thrive in warm and humid climatic condition. They usually lay eggs and hatch within three days in masses and travel quickly, such that in few days they attack hundreds of hectares of crops in the grass family like maize, sorghum, millet and vegetable crops. The larva of the pest consumes large amounts of leaf tissue leaving it in ragged appearance. Some of the symptoms of the pests attack are tattered leaves, large amounts of faecal matters and loss of main leaves that manufactures plant food.
Lester Jalani, a maize farmer in Njuli area under Chiradzulu district, says he knew nothing about fall armyworms until he heard on the radio that it has affected farmlands in neighbouring districts. He had no idea the pest has already spread to his district until he went to inspect his maize crop field.
“While I was in the field, I noticed the tattered leaves on the maize crop and I knew the pest was finally here,” says Jalani who owns a two-acre maize farm. “I alerted fellow farmers in my village. They also inspected their crop fields and confirmed the attack.”
Jalani’s entire crop has been severely affected. He does not see his family harvesting any maize this season because the pests attack is coming after a prolonged dry spell which started in mid-December. This resulted in drying some of the crops on the field.
“I normally harvest 30 bags of maize, weighing 50 kilogrammes each in a good season. However, with the combined dry spell and fall armyworms, my maize crops are severely affected. I don’t think I can even harvest five bags.”
Another farmer whose crop was infested by the fall armyworms is Cedric Nkwenembera of Lunzu area, outside Blantyre city. He says he noticed the invasion of the pests when his maize crops were about three weeks old and 30 centimeters high.
“I was alerted by people that a strange pest was attacking crops. I went to inspect my maize crop garden and that was when I noticed significant faecal matters and tattered leaves,” Nkwenembera recalls.
“The rate at which the pests were spreading was scary. I contacted our own lead farmer, Kenson Mulapula who reported the pests attack to the Chipande Extension Planning Area (EPA) office for action as we did not know what to do with the destructive pests.”
An agricultural extension planning area is an agriculture development intervention targeted area where farmers are provided with crop and animal husbandry extension services. A district can have as few as two EPAs and as many as six EPAs, depending on the geographical size and population of the district.
Government to the rescue – too little, too late?
Kenson Mulapula is trained in modern agricultural practices by government and helps fellow farmers in absence of qualified agriculture extension personnel who are in short supply in most areas.
Mulapula says although government through the Ministry of Agriculture came to the district’s rescue by distributing Cypermethrin and Durziban chemicals to the farmers, the amount allocated to a particular area was too little and too late.
“The distributed chemicals were not enough to cater for all affected farmers, and for the lucky ones that received the chemicals, it was not enough for their entire affected fields,” says Mulapula
Mulapula says he does not see government and other stakeholders being serious about fighting the pests going by the way the distribution of chemicals was done, adding many affected farmers were not reached out to. As a result, Mulapula foresees food shortages in months to come.
When RuralReporters asked Patrick Kakande, the Agricultural Extension Development Coordinator (AEDC) of the area if the concerns raised by the farmers were valid, he says farmers are right to complain as the intervention from his office was indeed not adequate.
“I understand farmers concerns, and we wish we could have helped them to their satisfaction. However, the resources we were given was not enough so we had to do with what we had,” Kakande says, adding that he hopes more resources will be provided soon to address the shortfalls.
In absence of adequate government assistance, farmers resorted to using local ways. One of such ways is the use of a concoction made from neem tree leaves, ash, and water.
Samuel Kamwana, a farmer, says the concoction works against the armyworms but does not harm the plants. After making the concoction, Kamwana says he applies its drops to the affected part of the plant and at the heart of the stalk where the worm usually hides.
“A friend of mine from Zomba district told me of the home-made concoction. I didn’t hesitate to try it and when I did, it worked,” he says, explaining that the neem tree leaves restricts the appetite and growth of the pest, thereby controlling its rapid spreading.
Another farmer, Mary Siyani, says she has been using two homemade solutions she learned from others.
One of them is using the soup made from Usipa, a small sardine-like fish species which is mixed with sugar. When applied to plants, it attracts ants which in turn feed on the worm.
She says the other method is using cow or goat dung, neem leaf powder mixed with water to come up with a solution which is then applied to the affected crops.
“Although both interventions are not completely wiping out the pest, at least they are reducing its rapid spread,” Siyani says.
“In the end, we hope to salvage a little maize to harvest although much damage has already been done.”