Some are calling it ‘Chamdonthi’ while others call it ‘Muononga’ and in English it is called fall armyworm.
It is a pest that destroys crops in the grass family such as maize, millet, sorghum, rice and sugar cane.
In Malawi, fall armyworm has been so destructive to the staple grain, maize, with Salima, Balaka and Chikwawa as the worst hit.
Months after it swarmed most countries in eastern and southern Africa including Malawi, solutions to exterminate it are far away from sight.
Tracing its origin in Latin America, the pest is an invasive species resistant to commonly used pesticides and it is harder to detect and eradicate.
With its eggs laid and hatched within two to three days, fall armyworm breeds in masses ready to sweep out crop fields
Its arrival on a field is like another incarnation of the end times. The signs and symptoms are as scary as its bottomless hunger for plunder.
Early symptoms include skeletonised leaves, heavily windowed whorls dotted with large amounts of faecal matter and loss of main leaves that manufacture plant food among others.
At a larger stage, the larvae of the pest consume huge amounts of leaf tissue leaving it in ragged appearance like a tattered curtain.
Selina Mangwe is a 40-year-old farmer from Chazama Village in Salima. She is a member of Kambwiri Sele Scheme which grows maize on 6.2 hectares.
Mangwe joined the scheme in 1995 but she has never witnessed any form of crop destruction than the one from fall armyworm.
“It’s the first time to see this massive attack on maize crop in the field. The pest is damaging both rain-fed and irrigated maize,” she says.
Despite the challenges caused by the pest infestation, Mangwe says she is not giving up growing the crop that has brought fortunes to her family.
Through maize production, she has erected a standard house with iron sheet roofing, purchased goats and two bicycles.
Mangwe is hopeful that a solution to eliminate the pest will be found.
In Chikwawa, farmers are not just sitting around waiting for the situation to improve. Instead, they are improvising remedies like using Neem leaves to minimise the impact of fall armyworm attack on maize crop.
Use of Neem leaves is billed as one of the biological control measures that restricts the appetite and growth of the pest.
“We pluck Neem leaves and dry them in a shade. Then we crush the dried leaves, sieve the flour, add water and stir. After this stage, it’s ready for use,” says Melina Bwatha, a farmer at Nabomba Scheme in Chikwawa.
The Neem liquid is usually applied as a spray on young caterpillars of the pest.
“From our experience, this method is slightly making a difference. But sometimes we combine it with Cypermethrine, a pesticide.
“We also use washing powder by dissolving it in water and spray the solution to the affected crop. The dissolved powder irritates the worms and drives them away,” Bwatha says.
Balaka District Agriculture Development Officer Dennis Zingeni says the fall armyworms surfaced in November 2014 and it was initially thought as a stalk borer.
But when experts sent samples to research stations, it was discovered that the nation was up against an unknown pest.
“It is a new pest in this part of the world that attacks both rain-fed and irrigated crops. It is destructive,” Zingeni says.
So far, the pest has ravaged 139,000 hectares of maize crop in Balaka, according to Zingeni.
In Salima Agriculture Development Division (SADD), which covers Salima and Nkkhotaota, figures stand at 6,600 hectares.
“The affected 600 hectares is for irrigated crops while the rest is for rain-fed crops,” says Martin Nuka, Principal Agricultural Officer for Crops at SADD.
In Chikwawa, 10,206 hectares have been affected while Nsanje has lost 3,991 hectares with the pest mainly targeting maize and sorghum.
The two Shire Valley districts including Salima and Balaka are said to be highly vulnerable due to their hot conditions, which is an ideal environment for multiplication of the pest.
The extent of damage is also dependent on the maize varieties with some varieties being “easy prey” due to their sweet taste.
Apart from the use of Neem leaves by farmers, measures taken to eliminate the pest include sensitisation meetings to farmers through extension workers and lead farmers.
According to Zingeni, the great challenge with many farmers is late application of pesticides to their fields.
“This problem comes about because farmers are struggling to identify the pest in good time. As a result, farmers apply pesticides when it is already too late,” he says.
Zingeni says they are empowering farmers with knowledge and skills in identifying the pest at an early stage.
Another intervention is the purchase of fall armyworm traps which can detect the pest at a radius of five hectares.
“We will start using the traps in the next rainy season,” says Zingeni.
In Salima, extension workers and farmers have been trained in effective use of the currently recommended pesticides like Cypermethrine and determethrine.
Farmers are also adopting other biological methods like use of tobacco leaves and soup of usipa, a small sardine-like fish that occurs in large shoals, which is mixed with sugar to attract ants to feed on the pest.
In Chikwawa, Novacode and Cypermethrine are the scientific methods in use in addition to the traditional methods such as Neem, which some farmers are mixing with animal dung.
Trials at research station
Since it is the first time that Malawi is affected by this problem, there were no locally adapted means of managing the pest, according to MacDonald Kachigamba, an Entomologist at Bvumbwe Research Station.
He says locally adapted techniques are being trialed at the station to ensure that the pest is less of a threat to food security in the country.
“We have come up with an integrated pest management approach which uses several techniques in evaluating a number of pesticides for control of fall armyworm,” Kachigamba says.
“We are using 11 pesticides, nine of which are promising but we cannot disclose the names. But in the trial plots, fall armyworm is being wiped out, giving us hope that we can control the pest.”
Kachigamba says Bvumbwe Research Station is also experimenting on the use of traditional methods and the effectiveness of combining traditional methods with scientific ones.
He adds that there is a very good relationship between the concentration of the pesticides and development of resistance in the pest.
“If you give a lower than recommended concentration, you are just inducing resistance. It is like giving it a vaccine for the pest. The concentration has to be the recommended one.
“Similarly, if you spray higher than the recommended concentration, it also increases resistance for the pest that escapes the application. That’s why it is always recommended to use the rate that is indicated on the product,” he says.
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