THE BLOG
30/05/2018 12:05 BST | Updated 30/05/2018 14:54 BST

Sub-Saharan Farmers Are Being Bankrupted... By A Worm

'Farmers are not making enough money because they are selling their harvests for a low cost, and it costs a lot more to grow the crops.'

Riccardo Gangale/ Bloomberg/ Getty Images
A farmer displays mielie leaves damaged by fall armyworm caterpillars on a farm in the Trans-Mzoia region of Kenya, on Wednesday, May 24 2017.

The fall armyworm infestation in sub-Saharan Africa is bankrupting farmers who cannot afford expensive insecticides to protect their crops. Struggling farmers are now resorting to selling off their land to the highest bidder. Farmers say the pest, which was first detected in central and western Africa in 2016, has become a thorn in their sides that they just can't get rid of.

They have had only a handful of successful harvests and have had to sell the produce for very little, which does not even cover the costs of growing the crop. The pest has compounded their problem tenfold. Farmer Joseph Nampajji from Buwaya, Uganda, said he was forced to start bartering his vegetation to pay for the tuition of his eight children.

"It's really hard being a farmer in these times. Many people I know are running away from farming. They are giving the land to businessmen; this is increasing everywhere," he said.

"Farmers are not making enough money, because they are selling their harvests for a low cost, and it costs a lot more to grow the crops. With me, I use harvests to pay in kind, for tuition payment."

The 44-year-old, although a teacher by profession, will not let his farm go. He loved farming as a kid and despite the hardship with the pest on his 0.8-hectare farm, he continues to grow mielies, beans and sweet potato.

"Last season the worm affected me a lot, because we were not prepared for it. Right now, it affects a few stocks only. If you identify the worm early enough, you can prevent it from spreading. You have to keep checking the plants, to see how they are doing and if they are infected," he said.

In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 200-million people depend on mielies for food security, as it is a staple cereal crop.

When he finds crops that are affected, he uproots them and uses them as mulch. Those that can be saved are sprayed with insecticide — when he can afford it.

"I apply according to my means," said Nampajji, who along with his wife are the breadwinners of the family.

"Not all get insecticide."

The armyworm, as an adult moth using high-altitude winds, can fly nearly 1,600km in just 30 hours, and can easily migrate to neighbouring countries. The female moth can lay up to 1,000 eggs in her lifetime, so the pest can cause great damage to crops if not managed adequately.

The armyworm a taste for mielies — however, it also feeds on more than 80 other species of plant, including rice, sorghum, millet, sugarcane, vegetable crops and cotton. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 200-million people depend on mielies for food security, as it is a staple cereal crop.

So far, the invasion of the fall armyworm has resulted in some containment measures being undertaken, but none are long-term or sustainable. Innovation and technology may be crucial to finding small solutions that can help mitigate the risk of decreasing food security in Africa. The value of small innovations means that farmers can start tackling the issue before it's too late.

In this regard, Nesta, on behalf of Feed the Future, Land O' Lakes International Development (LOL) and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), launched a competition (Fall Armyworm Tech Prize) targeting innovators around the globe aimed at finding solutions to the armyworm threat.

Technological advancements can help in the conversation on how to deal with this outbreak effectively.

It focused on digital solutions and approaches that provide timely, context-specific information that will enable smallholder farmers and those who support them to identify, treat, and track the incidence of the fall armyworm in Africa.

The competition ended on May 14, and it will be interesting to see the type of ideas that come out of it.

Feed the Future hopes to increase agricultural activity, boost harvests and incomes for rural smallholder farmers, and generate opportunities for economic growth and trade in developing countries.

With the ongoing advances in digital innovation, electronic data mining, new technologies and various crowdsourcing initiatives, the USAID's Digital Inclusion team believes that the global movement to share open data will enable farmers to have access to relevant information that will assist them in mitigating the devastation to their crops.

While digital tools are not the only solutions to fall armyworm, technological advancements can help in the conversation on how to deal with this outbreak effectively.