Over the past two weeks, farmers of Yinesu Sostu Wereda in Gojjam, Amhara Regional State, were busy handpicking larvae of the fall armyworm, a migratory crop pest that damages maize and other crops after feeding on them, from their maize fields.
The farmers from the area which is also known as Gogota are doing this as an immediate response to the recent armyworm attack in their region from its initial outburst in Benishangul Gumuz Regional State.
A father of five, Goshu Mulachew, is one of the farmers in the area who harvests maize on a three-Qert, equivalent to three-fourths of a hectare. He has been a farmer for the past decade, mainly cultivating maize, sorghum and Teff.
For him, this Belg season is horrific as this pest is entirely feeding on maize leaves and stems, locally named ‘Mushira’, and damaging the maize fields.
He was aware of the invasion of the fall armyworm in Ethiopia through media. But he did not expect that the worm could appear in his region and Wereda.
“Even though the issue has been the talk of the nation, we did not expect it to appear in our area. Because we believed that the government is working to control the worm,” said Goshu.
Originating from South America, the worm first broke out in Bench Maji Zone, Benishangul Gumuz Regional State, in February, 2017. It attacks over 80 plant species such as maize, millet, wheat, potato, soybean, cowpea, peanuts, sorghum, rice, sugarcane and even vegetables and cotton.
After it was seen in Benishangul, the attack of the armyworm spread to five other regions including Oromia, Gambella, Amhara, Tigray and Southern Nations, Nationalities & Peoples’ regional states, mainly attacking maize.
Out of the one million hectares of land that is cultivated with maize in the current fiscal year, the worm has attacked 135,000ha of maize field in 28 Zones, 192 Weredas and 2,588 Kebeles across the six regional states including Yinesu Sostu Wereda.
“The worm fully eats the stems of one farm and migrates to another,” said Goshu, who was hoping to harvest by mid-August, but is now in doubt due to the current situation.
The worms eat everything that they touch, and once the food supply is exhausted, the entire “army” will move to the next available food source, technically to the neighbouring farm cultivated with maize. And this is how the worm is expanding in the country.
It flies over 100km an hour and lays 1,500 to 2,000 eggs at once. It also travels up to five kilometres with the wind. The worms feed at such overwhelming speed that by the time they are discovered, notable damage would already have been caused. Now in Ethiopia, the infestation has reached a point where it has become a headache for the nation.
The fall armyworm is a dangerous trans-boundary pest with a high potential of spreading due to bio-ecological and trade aspects, according to a report by the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO).
As such a worm is a new phenomenon in the country, farmers such as Goshu are using traditional mechanisms to save their farms. They remove the maize plant with its roots and bury it in deeply excavated holes or kill the worms after dragging them out from the stem by handpicking the larvae.
Despite efforts that are underway, the situation has created frustration for the government and the farmers, especially those in Oromia and Southern regions which are severely affected by the worm.
One of them is Dirsane Angelo, who resides in Yeki Wereda of Sheka Zone, one of the places where the insect first set foot in Ethiopia.
His half a hectare farm was cultivated with maize, but it was entirely damaged by the invasion of the fall armyworm.
“We use most of the yield for family consumption,” said Dirsane who has 13 children from two wives.
In Dirsane’s locality, maize is highly consumed as a staple food. The introduction of the worms poses a lasting threat to crops in the area as well as in the country, whose agricultural sector contributes around 33pc to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
“When we first knew the worm was spotted in Africa we were reviewing ways of tackling it through a task force,” said Tesfaye Mengiste, state minister at the Ministry of Agriculture & Natural Resources (MoANR).
As soon as the fall armyworm was identified five months ago in the Southern Rigion, the Ministry provided farmers and concerned bodies with the relevant information to address how to control the destructive effects of the pest, according to Zebdios Selato, Plant Health Care Director at MoANR.
Out of the total maize farms attacked by the recent armyworm outbreak, the Ministry claims that it can manage to control and protect 83,000ha of maize farm using 52,448lt of chemicals and traditional methods.
Although the government stresses that it is aggressively distributing chemicals in the areas affected by the armyworm attacks, farmers from the Oromia and Amhara regions claim that they are facing challenges in getting pesticides.
“I am receiving several calls from farmers in the Elfeta Wereda, Gimbi Zone, to get pesticide,” said Gadissa Gobena, a farmer who also engages in distributing improved seeds and pesticides in Ambo, Oromia Regional State.
In Ambo, the worm was seen three weeks ago, but the damage became severe in the past two weeks, according to Gadissa. And the number of farmers who seek his advice and assistance has increased drastically.
“In a day, over 10 farmers make a call to ask me for solutions, including requesting chemicals to avoid the pest,” Gadissa told Fortune.
This is also a challenge for the farmers who live in Gojjam area.
As they cannot get the pesticides from the government, the farmers are purchasing the pesticides from their own pockets, paying between 500 Br to 800 Br for one litre of chemical that can be used to reduce the effects of the worm on a hectare of land, according to the farmers in the area.
Since the outbreak of the worm, Adami Tulu Pesticide Processing S.C., a local pesticide and chemical manufacturer, is producing 18,000lt of chemicals on a daily basis, according to the state minister.
But Yinesu Sostu Wereda has not received a single drop of the chemical yet.
“The regional agricultural bureau promised to spray pesticide and to supply the chemical but we have not received any yet,” said Goshu.
As a result, agricultural extension workers from the area started to advise farmers to use the traditional method, exercising handpicking of larvae, as an immediate response to the worm.
But as a long-term prevention method, the Ministry is providing training and awareness creation through different media outlets and aggressively distributing chemicals to the farmers, according to Tesfaye.
The chemical, however, is not short of problems.
Unless the chemical is mixed with water, it seriously affects the maize, according to a farmer in Elfeta Wereda, Oromia Region.
But for an immediate solution, the Ministry of Finance & Economic Cooperation (MoFEC) has allocated a significant amount of money to buy chemicals and other items to eradicate the worm from the country.
For the pesticide alone, MoFEC has allocated nearly 46 million Br to tackle the problem.
“The insect is establishing itself and is expected to remain an economic pest for a very long time to come. Hence, we need to employ a short and long-term fall armyworm management and control plan,” Bayeh Mulatu, National Integrated Pest Management Expert at FAO Ethiopia, was quoted on FAO’s website.
As a result, officials of the Ministry affirm that although the control activities are progressing, the impacts of the pest infestation will negatively affect the production of maize this year, as it takes time for the affected plants to recover.
But as a final and only way to manage the fall armyworm in the long term, FAO suggests an Integrated Pest Management system.
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