Ethiopia: Maize farmers grow special plants to manage Fall armyworm

August 07, 2018
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On a cloudy morning, Harbe Tafesse walks through a narrow passageway on one side of her house that leads to the 625-square-metre piece of land where she grows maize. Today, the mother of seven woke up early to see if her maize plants are safe from the recent invasion of Fall armyworm in her area.

Mrs. Tafesse lives in the Dore Bafenno district of southern Ethiopia. She is using a method called push-pull to manage Fall armyworm. She intercrops maize with two plants called Desmodium and Brachiaria, which helps to reduce the number of pests on her maize plants.

She says the smell of Desmodium repels Fall armyworm and Brachiaria’s smell attracts them. She adds, “Implementing push-pull has kept the maize from being attacked by the pest. Not just mine, but also the field next to mine seems to be free from the Fall armyworm.”

The method works in two ways. First, planting Desmodium seeds between rows of maize repels or pushes away Fall armyworm and other pests. Second, planting Brachiaria around the borders of the maize field attracts or pulls the pests away from her maize.

A number of farmers in her area are using the method to protect their crops from Fall armyworm and other pests.

Arriving at her maize garden, Mrs. Tafesse is relieved that the push-pull method continues to save her maize from damage. She explains, “I first applied the push-pull method last year. I wanted to protect my maize from stem borer, but then I also witnessed that push-pull is effective against Fall armyworm.”

Not all farmers in Dore Bafenno district are familiar with push-pull. Mrs. Tafesse says she is trying her best to inform farmers in her area about the benefits.

She adds: “This year, I have shared [push-pull] plants from my own field with three farmers…. They have planted in their fields and are witnessing the advantage … and they are also training other farmers on how to implement push-pull.”

Shekure Kitesa is another farmer in Dore Bafenno district who has adopted the push-pull technique. He says: “Prior to implementing push-pull, I would lose up to 500 kilograms of maize to pests out of the total 2,000 kilograms that I now produce. If push-pull can be implemented in every farmer’s maize field, then we will be able to sufficiently cope with Fall armyworm.”

Bayu Enchalew is a field assistant at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, or ICIPE. He says that ICIPE and its partners introduced the push-pull technique to farmers in Ethiopia as an environmentally friendly method of managing the stem borer, but that it later proved to be useful in managing Fall armyworm.

Mr. Enchalew says his organization is encouraging farmers to reproduce Desmodium and Brachiaria themselves. The seeds are sometimes scarce and are expensive since they are imported from other countries.

Mr. Enchalew adds, “Seeds are not the only way to grow the plants. Desmodium can be reproduced by cutting it into pieces and Brachiaria through splitting.”

He says that there are about 23,000 farmers in the area where he works, but that only about 700 are using the push-pull method. He adds that there are several challenges that prevent farmers from using the technique. These include a lack of understanding about the benefits of push-pull, inadequate labour force to plant the seeds, and inadequate knowledge on how to plant the seeds.

Mrs. Tafesse relies on maize for food and income to support her family. To safeguard her main source of income, she says she will continue using the push-pull method and expanding the technique on her farm because it is helping to control Fall armyworm. She says, “I am working hard to expand the push-pull plants all the way down the field because it is useful.”