DRC: With no guaranteed control methods, farmers experiment with their own techniques to manage ‘Boko Haram’ caterpillar

July 31, 2017
A translation for this article is available in French

In the Eastern region of Democratic Republic of Congo, 2016/2017 was a bad season for most farmers. A caterpillar called Mtenkunya in the local language severely attacked maize crops.

Researchers think it might be the same caterpillar that is damaging crops in West Africa, where farmers have called it Boko Haram. This is a reference to the violent group that is wreaking havoc in parts of West and Central Africa. Like Boko Haram, the pest appears suddenly, causes major damage, then vanishes.

The caterpillar, also known as fall armyworm or FAW, was first observed in Africa in Nigeria in January 2016. Its scientific name is Spodoptera frugiperda. The pest spread very quickly and now affects many countries in southern, eastern, and West Africa. In August 2016, media outlets in Benin reported that the pest had destroyed between 30,000 and 40,000 hectares of maize in the north part of the country.

The caterpillar feeds at night and prefers maize, but will feed on hundreds of other plants, including millet, sorghum, rice, wheat, sugar cane, cowpea, groundnuts, potatoes, soybean, and cotton. It is easy to recognize affected maize plants. Their leaves are full of holes, turn yellow, and sometimes fall.

In response to fall armyworm, agronomists have recommended that farmers with small plots remove caterpillars on maize plants manually and crush them by hand.

Farmers report that the caterpillars attack maize plants 30 to 45 days after sowing. After 45 days, the caterpillars burrow into the stem. Farmers with small plots must regularly inspect all their plants to make sure there are no caterpillars inside that could spread to unaffected plants.

In Niger, producers are using pyrethroid or organophosphate insecticides for FAW. These products must be either inhaled or in direct contact with the insect’s body to work. But larger, older caterpillars feed inside the maize plant, and these types of insecticides are not effective at reaching them.

Until experts identify other solutions, some farmers are taking the initiative and trying their own methods.

Some spread ashes or dust on the part of the plant where large larvae feed. Others spray the plants with organic insecticides made with Tephrosia or Neem leaves mixed with powdered soap.

Some farmers think they will have better results by planting the local variety Kameta and the hybrid variety Babungo.

Other producers think that diversifying crops by, for example, relay cropping common beans or soybean with maize might work—or that increasing the seeding rate of lowland maize may reduce the risk from FAW.