“At first I didn’t dare pick the worms with my fingers. But after a while I built up the courage – I picked them and took them to my grandfather so he could destroy them’, Grace Yvonne tells us.
At just eight years old, she has single-handedly rescued her grandparents’ maize crop from the relentless march of the fall armyworm. Feeding on over 80 different plant and crop species, the pest has a particular preference for maize. In June 2018 fall armyworm was present in one-quarter of the maize cropland in Kenya, affecting more than 3 million people.
Since it first appeared in Africa in 2016, identifying and controlling fall armyworm has been a high priority for the FAO Resilience Team for Eastern Africa. In Kenya as in so many other countries, farmers quickly realised to their despair that pesticides were of little help in combatting it.
During the short rains of 2017, FAO launched a pilot project in Kenya’s Embu County. Specially trained field scouts were deployed to visit smallholder farmers twice a week for six weeks to assist them in fall armyworm mechanical control – i.e. seeking out and crushing the pest’s eggs and larvae, as Grace Yvonne did.
The Embu pilot project was aimed at defining and testing a model for fall armyworm control, one that would be sustainable and cost-effective across different contexts and countries. Given the scale of the problem, any progress in controlling the pest is of interest to millions of farmers on the continent.
As Communications Officer for the Resilience Team for Eastern Africa, Sven Simonsen visited Embu to assess how smallholder farmers were coping with the pest. Most of the farmers he encountered had been able to recover their recent harvest using mechanical control methods. It was an FAO field scout who taught Grace Yvonne her crop-saving skills: ”There were so many worms there when we started! ” she recalled. Infestation was severe in the entire area at that time, with many farmers losing their entire crops.
Grace Yvonne’s efforts made all the difference for her grandparents, who due to their age could not carry out the mechanical control on their own. Fall armyworm is still present in their maize field, but not as a serious threat.
A recent assessment found that after the conclusion of the project in Embu, 80 percent of participants who used mechanical control continued doing so the following season without field scout support. Most preferred this method to other practices as it reduced infestation and was less expensive. The FAO Resilience Team for Eastern Africa is seeking to scale up fall armyworm control measures across seven East African countries – Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda.