Western Kenya faces brunt of fall armyworm 'invasion'


Farmers and officials in western Kenya are urging the government to declare a national disaster following the "invasion" of fall armyworms that the Ministry of Agriculture itself admits is laying waste to crops in the region.

It has been estimated that the entire continent will lose 13.5 million tons of maize in 2017 worth around $3 billion due to the pests that reportedly arrived last year through a maize shipment in Western Africa where the first cases were reported.

The Kenyan government confirmed the pests had invaded maize farms in western Kenya, a region which receives adequate rainfall all year round and produces most of the food that Kenyans eat; other cereals such as rice, barley, and wheat have also been affected. Vegetables and grasses have also been decimated by the small worm which has fast become the most dreaded enemy of farmers in Kenya.

The outbreak comes at a critical time when more than 3 million Kenyans are facing starvation due to a drought that has rocked the East African region; food prices in Kenya alone have almost doubled compared with prices last year.

Josephat Wafula, a farmer from the western town of Kitale that is famous for its large maize production, said he lost an acre to the worms in the recently concluded harvesting season. "I started realizing that the leaves in my maize plantation were sort of folded, so I took one and tried to open it; I was shocked to find that inside there were insects.

"They had torn apart the whole leaf; I grabbed a maize cob and also removed the leaves, the annoying insects had eaten all the maize even before it fully had matured," Wafula said.

"They poke holes and they reproduce so fast, I lost an acre to these insects; they have also shown to be resistant to pesticides, the government should intervene and help us, our livelihoods are at stake," he added.

Even though the Kenyan government had said that it had set aside $2 million to combat the pests, most farmers from the green western highlands lament that they were yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel during the current challenging times and call for more help.

Patrick Khaemba, governor of Trans Nzoia County, said the national government should describe the outbreak as a national disaster. "We are asking the national government to declare the invasion of the army [worms] as a national disaster and to declare it as an emergency; it can wipe out 100 percent of the food crops on the farms," Khaemba said, adding that in his region alone more than 5,000 hectares of maize crop had been affected.

Lilian Gichuru, a plant breeder with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, said the fall armyworms, which is known scientifically as "Spodoptera frugiperda", is new to Kenya and is known to feed on almost 80 species of plants.

Gichuru said the fall armyworms have a Y shape on its head and four dots in the back while the African armyworm has stripes. "As much as it is known to be highly polyphagous, it prefers to feed on maize, and as you know maize is grown everywhere in the African continent so we are actually facing very serious problem," she said.

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