Malawi’s new-found love: Crop diseases (Part Two)


In the maize fields of Dedza District in villages such as Kamgulitse, Mng’ona, Kuthindi, Msesa— which have, so far, been visited by government top officials this year— the glamour of green fields that characterised the landscape in early December has been dampened by the damage inflicted by the fall armyworm.

Consequently, the farmer— a diminutive creature when pitted against big companies that buy the produce, as well as the vastness and complexity of the profit-oriented and exploitative market— is distraught. The farming-journey that begun in triumph at the onset of the planting season, when the rains fell in droves, is likely to end in tragedy.

With the fall armyworm on the loose, portents of trouble, in the form of a poor harvest, are obvious.


It is not surprising, therefore, that the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development has blown the early trumpet, sounding the world out. Over 850, 000 households are likely to face hunger this year, following a dry spell that has destroyed 234, 000 hectares of crop fields.

In Zomba District alone, 76,525 households have been affected by the dry spell, according to records at Zomba District Agriculture Office. This is contained in a report released on January 16.

This is because, according to the report, 24, 302 hectares of land have been hit by the dry spell, so much so that crops cultivated on 91 hectares have wilted.


“The Ministry [of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development] has not yet come up with interventions we have to implement but, by the end of this week, we will be able to tell. Obviously, we will be considering alternatives such as planting early maturing crops, [planting] drought tolerant crops such as cassava and sweet potatoes.

“We will also think of planting other crops under irrigation but, in terms of how much [in terms of financial resources] to put into the intervention, we have not yet finalised [work] on that,” concedes Osborne Tsoka, Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development spokesperson.

He is addressing the issue of dry spell, and not that of the fall armyworm. This means his is a story of a disaster upon disaster because the real disaster was supposed to be the fall armyworm.

In Dedza District, the fall armyworm has taken villages by surprise as hope for a promising harvest transforms to despair. What is more, the fruit of tomato and other plants have been ravaged.

Initially, when reports of the fall armyworm emerged, Salima, Balaka and Lower Shire districts were the most affected.

But experts now count Machinga District among those affected, with Machinga District Agriculture Development Officer, Edward Katunga, recently saying that, so far, only 490 litres of the required quantity of chemicals [4,000 litres] had been provided by the government, through the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development.

Meanwhile, Katunga fears that the worms might spread to other areas.

“The problem is huge. More farmers have been affected. However, let me say that the government has provided us with 490 litres of chemicals which we have already distributed to some of the affected farmers. However, we need more chemicals,” Katunga says.

Malawi is in a loud crisis. Again.

No wonder, the Farmers Union of Malawi (Fum) has become so desperate for a solution that it has attacked the government for its lukewarm response to the problem of fall armyworm infestation.

Fum says, while the fall armyworm has, so far, attacked at least 193,000 hectares of land across the country, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development has not been quick enough in supplying chemicals to farmers .

Tsoka recently said the government had procured and distributed 12, 600 litres of Dursban.

“So far, the ministry has approved six chemicals that can be used to contain the index of the fall armyworm. We also need to procure the other pesticides alongside Dursban to run away from the issue of pesticides’ resistance,” Tsoka says, highlighting efforts the government is making to solve challenges farmers are encountering.

The number of hectares affected by the fall armyworm, which are mostly attacking maize, has shot from 34,000 hectares to 193,000 hectares in less than four weeks, worsening fears of a wipeout of the country’s staple crop.

Fum President, Alfred Kapichira Banda, says the government has to come out clearly and admit its failure so that farmers can find their own means to save their fields from doom.

“The government’s response strategy is not effective. They go to the affected areas, analyse the situation and take a long time before going back to spray the pesticides. The crops are being wiped-out in the process. The government should just tell us that they have failed to help the farmers,” Banda says.

In fact, at one point, Controller of Extension and Technical Activities in the Ministry of Agriculture, Albert Changaya, admitted that there were delays in the intervention process aimed at tackling the plague.

This could be because the government needs more resources— which the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development projects at K9.3 billion— to contain the fall armyworm infestation.

Of the K9 billion, K8.4 billion has been set aside for the procurement of pesticides while the remaining amount is for research work, supervision and monitoring interventions in affected areas.

So quick was the fall armyworm that— as The Daily Times reported in October 2017— farmers, particularly of the subsistence type, seemed ill-prepared to deal with it.

Unsure of a proper response, they resorted to using common sense, which saw them applying pesticides, soap detergents and ash in desperate attempts to save what remained of their crops.

To no avail.

Of course, some methods worked, but most of them simply failed to bring desired results.

Early symptoms of the fall armyworm include skeletonised leaves, heavily windowed whorls dotted with large amounts of faecal matter and loss of main leaves that manufacture plant food.

At a larger stage, the larvae of the pest consume huge amounts of leaf tissue, leaving it in ragged appearance like a tattered curtain.

According to a write-up by Farmers Organisation Limited (FOL), which has been operating in Malawi since 1980, the fall armyworm displays a very wide host range, with over 80 plants recorded, although it clearly prefers grasses.

“The most frequently consumed plants are maize and sweet corn, sorghum, Bermudagrass and grass weeds such as crabgrass. When the larvae are very numerous, they defoliate the preferred plants, acquire an ‘armyworm’ habit and disperse in large numbers, consuming nearly all vegetation in their path. Many host records reflect such periods of abundance and are not truly indicative of oviposition and feeding behaviour under normal conditions.

“Field crops are frequently damaged, including cotton, maize, millet, groundnuts, rice, sorghum, soybean, sugarcane, tobacco and wheat. Among vegetable crops, only sweet corn is regularly damaged, but others are attacked occasionally. Other crops sometimes damaged are apple, grape, orange, papaya, peach, strawberry and a number of flowers….

“There is some evidence that fall armyworm strains exist, based primarily on their host plant preference. One strain feeds principally on maize, but also on sorghum, cotton and a few other hosts if they are found growing near the primary hosts,” FOL says of the fall armyworm.

Historically, Malawi is by no means the only country that is feeling the wrath of the fall armyworm, whose origin experts trace to Brazil. Crops in several countries in Eastern and Southern Africa have equally been decimated by the fall armyworm, which has been recorded to also devour rice and sugarcane.

Of course, the government has, again, been seen to be active in solving this latest puzzle to Malawi’s agriculture.

For example, under the Agricultural Productivity Programme for Southern Africa, the Department of Agriculture Research Services — through Bvumbwe Agricultural Research Station in Thyolo District— has, since August 2017, been conducting trials on 14 pesticides that farmers can use to control the fall armyworm.

This is necessary because, being the first time for Malawi to be affected by the pest, there has been no locally adapted means of managing it, says Tifera Mankhwanda, assistant agriculture research officer at the research station.

Mankhwanda blames climate change for the proliferation of some of the crop diseases that have come to negatively affect food production of late, saying this is how climate change can pose a threat to food security in Malawi.

It is not only the availability, or unavailability, of rains that affects— positively or negatively—food security, he suggests.

Mankhwanda says 14 pesticides are undergoing trials to evaluate their effectiveness in controlling the fall armyworm.

“The chemicals are coming in as a last resort, but we are encouraging farmers to use cultural practices in controlling the fall armyworm,” Mankhwanda says.

And, so, it is that Malawi faces twin problems in the agriculture sector; problems that have eluded treatment elsewhere and are here to test the resolve of farmers and the government they look up to.

Not even patience and hope will make them [banana Bunchy Top and the fall armyworm] go away. Action and only action just may. That is why the fragrance of panic is thick in the air.

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