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Combating fall armyworm attack amid confluence of challenges in Africa


The fall armyworm menace cost African farmers 40 per cent of their harvest in 2018. Amid COVID-19 spread, controlling the pest has become even more difficult

By Festus Akinnifesi, Zhongwei Liu

Africa’s food production and systems are facing unprecedented challenges — especially from transboundary and invasive pests of plants, animals and the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

These challenges demand urgent action alongside financial and non-financial resources. One of the biggest concerns is the spread of fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda), which has been threatening food production in the continent for years now.

The fall armyworm (FAW) made its first appearance in the continent in 2016. It originated from the tropical Americas and later spread to Africa, the Near East and Asia. It is now reported in at least 44 African countries.

The pest is a global threat — it affects 80 different crops, especially the staple ones. The menace has cost farmers and producers 40 per cent of harvests in 2018, according to an analysis of 12 African countries. This has translated to potential maize yield losses as high as 17.7 million tonnes annually — an amount enough to feed millions.

The economic value of fall armyworm damage to maize alone was $2.5-6.3 billion annually in 2018. The economic impact in terms of crop loss was estimated at $117 million in Ghana and $159 million in Zambia.

The FAW is a dangerous threat to Africa for the following reasons:

  • Hardiness: The FAW cannot be eradicated, nor can its spread be easily halted
  • Weather: Africa’s warm weather makes it suitable for it to rapidly spread to survive the year
  • Staple crop: Maize is the staple crop in most African countries. It is cultivated on 17 per cent of total land and can impact food security and livelihoods of over 300 million people across the value chain
  • High mobility: The moth can migrate up to 100 kilometres in a single night
  • Prolificacy: The female moth can lay as many as 1,000 eggs
  • VoracityThe FAW eats a wide variety of crops and nearly all of it — at all stages of vegetative growth
  • Resistance: Many of the widely used pesticides in Africa fall in the mode-of-action classes to which FAW has already developed resistance in America
  • Unintentional effect: Increased use of chemical pesticides may affect non-target insects, predators and parasitoids and a large diversity of micro-and macrofauna
  • Capacity: Inadequate biosecurity policies and measures in many African countries

FAO’s bull by the horn approach

In order to combat FAW’s aggressive spread, the Director-General of Food and Agriculture of the United Nations (FAO), QU Dongyu took a bold step by launching a $500 million ‘Global Action’ for FAW control in December 2019.

The three-year (2020-2022) global initiative will take direct, pragmatic and coordinated measures to strengthen the prevention and sustainable control of the transboundary pest.

In addition, several collaborations and activities led by FAO have begun to have positive preliminary impact on the FAW management:

  • Global coordination. A joint steering committee (SC) on the FAW control was established and chaired by the FAO Director-General. The SC provides overall guidance for global actions and platform for timely sharing of innovated technologies and mobilising necessary resource in support of various actions. 
  • Capacity development. As an example, the Multi-stakeholder Regional Workshop on Innovations for Smallholder Farmers for Sustainable Management of FAW Africa was organised from 21-24 October, 2019 in Praia, Cabo Verde. African countries updated on the measures taken to raise awareness and strengthen early warning and monitoring systems. It also suggested fine-tuning integrated pest management (IPM) strategies for long-term sustainable management.
  • Various financial resources were mobilised in support of implementing projects by most African countries. The total budget of $9 million was allocated to 63 projects, including $27 million from FAO Technical Cooperation Programme, $4 million from the European Union, $1.2 million from North American Aerospace Defense Command and $0.7 million from FAO regular budget. The projects focused on developing good practices, sharing and accumulating knowledge and vital lessons.

In addition, FAO and Penn State University have jointly developed an Android app called Fall Armyworm Monitoring System (FAMEWS). It is available in 29 languages and provides real-time and field-level information about the pest’s location, prevalence and spread to a global data platform every two hours, with specific tips on how to contain infestations.

The partnership launched an app called PlantVillage Nuru along with the consortium of international research centres. It aims to help African farmers identify FAW and other pests so that they can curb its impact.

The app is available in English, French and Swahili.

Experts generally agree that the IPM approach, based on sustainable options, is the best solution to control FAW spread including but not limited to the following:

  • Agricultural innovation has a big role to play. This includes digital solutions for monitoring and surveillance.
  • Use of biopesticides such as neem and other botanicals
  • Biocontrol through identification and use of indigenous as well as natural enemies such as predators and parasitoids, and bacteria and viruses. There is need to build capacity of national laboratories so they are able to produce biological control agents
  • Good agronomic practices, including intercropping with legumes, crop rotation, proper weed control, improved soil health, agroecology, and agroforestry, etc.
  • Bolstering farmer field schools with specific training in FAW management will ensure they are able to scale up support to smallholder farmers on FAW control
  • Development of FAW resistant varieties, using modern breeding methods including gene editing. Monitoring and Early Warning System tool
  • Promoting safe and low-risk solutions. Analysis of all local solutions and determine their effectiveness and suitability for scaling up in other countries

Looking forward

Efforts to combat FAW must consider the efficacy, food safety, environmental integrity and sustainability and public health. This requires informed, evidence-based decision and policy guides to protect biodiversity from indiscriminate use of pesticides.

Effective and responsive governance is needed, including policies to regulate practices and remove necessary barriers. The need of the hour is to mobilise resources, foster public-private partnerships investment and strengthen national institutional capacity.


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