Ethiopia: Farmers choose traditional methods over pesticides to control Fall armyworm

April 14, 2019
A translation for this article is available in French

It’s another busy morning. Young boys are leading livestock to pasture while women attend to various household chores. Silenat Molla is sitting on a stone step in front of her hut. She’s busy winnowing her maize in preparation for milling.

The 37-year-old farmer is worried. Fall armyworms recently invaded her farm and her maize harvest dwindled. It’s not enough to support her family. To make matters worse, her husband divorced her and took half of the meagre harvest that was saved from Fall armyworm, leaving her with six children and only 400 kilograms of maize.

Mrs. Molla says, “It was a significant blow to my yield. I lost about a third of my crop [to Fall armyworm], which is about seven to ten quintals (700 to 1,000 kilograms).”

Mrs. Molla lives in the Yigodi district of Ethiopia’s Amhara Region. She grows maize and finger millet on an acre of land in order to support her children.

She says that, when her maize was attacked by Fall armyworms, she used pesticides, which helped to reduce the damage.

She explains: “I had to spray pesticides in my maize field to salvage my harvest. I sprayed three times. The district agriculture bureau provided me with the pesticides twice and I had to purchase [them] once with my 180 Ethiopian Birr ($6.19 US).”

Although the pesticides significantly protected her maize, Mrs. Molla says that pesticides are scarce and she no longer relies on them. She is now using the traditional method of handpicking and destroying Fall armyworm eggs and caterpillars.

She explains, “I look for the … eggs or the Fall armyworm [caterpillars], pick them out and destroy them. [And] sometimes I find five to six Fall armyworms embedded in the husks.”

She says that, even though handpicking Fall armyworms appears to be effective, it requires a lot of labour.

Madyam Bellu is a farmer in Yinesa district who is also using the handpicking method to manage Fall armyworm.

Mrs. Bellu says: “When we notice that our neighbour’s maize plants are being attacked by the pest, we keep a close look at the Fall armyworm in our farm. Every time I locate the pest, I handpick it and make sure it is destroyed.”

She adds, “So far these methods have proven to be effective for us, and we have not experienced heavy losses of crops because of the pest.”

Melese Ahsagre is an expert in crop production and management at the Bahirdar office of the Ministry of Agriculture, in Amhara Region. He says that, because pesticides are in short supply and may not always be affordable, farmers are trained and encouraged to use traditional methods of controlling Fall armyworm.

Mr. Ahsagre adds that many farmers may not follow proper safety procedures when applying pesticides, which could put their health at risk.

He says that the traditional methods farmers can use to manage Fall armyworm include handpicking, tilling, and rotating crops.

He explains: “Tilling brings the pupae to the surface of the soil, where they dry up as soon as they emerge from their cocoons. Rotating crops with those that are not susceptible to Fall armyworm makes the field less attractive to the pest.”

Fall armyworm has drastically reduced Mrs. Molla’s maize production in the last few years, forcing one of her daughters to drop out of school, But she says that she will continue handpicking the pest to successfully manage it.

She explains: “I am going to keep monitoring my field and handpicking the Fall armyworms. Agricultural experts have taught us various ways of managing the pest before we resort to spraying chemicals.”

This work was created with the support of the USAID Feed the Future Ethiopia Value Chain Activity as part of the project, “ICT-enabled Radio Programming on Fall Armyworm (FAWET).”