Spotlight: Radio programs on Fall armyworm in Uganda

January 08, 2018
A translation for this article is available in French

Uganda first experienced Fall armyworm last year, when it took farmers by surprise. Pascal Mweruka is Farm Radio International’s radio craft development officer in Uganda. He says, “It was too much last year. Because it invaded gardens when no one was expecting it and it is a new pest in Uganda … many people lost their crops and the yield was very poor.”

Fall armyworm is native to the Americas. So when it first appeared in Africa in 2016, farmers didn’t know how to manage the pest—or even how to recognize it. In many places, farmers thought they were simply facing the African armyworm, an old pest.

As a new pest, little is known about how Fall armyworm will adapt to life in Africa, although it is known that the pest breeds quickly, with adults laying up to 1,000 eggs in a two-week lifetime. It can also travel far in the moth stage, up to 1,000 kilometres in the Americas.

Fall armyworm is a huge threat to farmers’ harvests, as it can destroy more than 80% of maize when pest populations are high and no control measures are taken. The pest eats up to 80 different plant species, sparing few crops in a farmer’s field. Fall armyworm is expected to damage up to 1.39 million tonnes of maize in Uganda.

Fall armyworm can be difficult to manage, as older larvae like to burrow into maize cobs or the whorl of the plants. This makes is vital to monitor fields for early detection and intervention.
To ensure Ugandan farmers are better prepared to manage Fall armyworm, FRI partnered with Radio Kitara and CABI, the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International, to air eight weeks of programming about Fall armyworm in Uganda.

Masindi and Kiryandongo are the primary maize-growing areas in Uganda, and so managing Fall armyworm is very important there.

The first week of the radio program discussed how to recognize Fall armyworm. The pest lays cream-coloured or grey egg masses. The larvae are light green to dark brown in colour and have three thin yellowish stripes on their back and a distinct white, inverted “Y” shape on the head.

The second week of programming discussed the threat of Fall armyworm to household food security and to market prices for a variety of crops, particularly maize, rice, and sorghum.
The program also discussed how to monitor fields for Fall armyworm, how to prepare for an infestation, and what to do if farmers find the pest in their field.

To monitor, farmers are advised to track damage on 10 consecutive plants in 10 randomly selected sites on their farm. When the plants are in the first half of the vegetative phase (the time between germination and flowering), control practices are recommended only if at least one in five plants show signs of damage.

To control Fall armyworm, several methods are being promoted, including hand-picking and destroying egg masses and larvae. Because the Fall armyworm lays so many eggs, killing larvae and eggs can dramatically slow the infestation.

In Uganda, farmers are also being advised to use a combination of pesticides, which must be applied at specific doses and particular times. The best times to spray for Fall armyworm are early in the morning and late afternoon, as the larvae are more active at night. Farmers should spray the whole plant, particularly the undersides of leaves and in the funnel of maize plants, where larger caterpillars can be found. It is also important to stop spraying several weeks before harvest so that grains do not contain unsafe levels of pesticide residues, which can be harmful to human health. The timing may vary depending on the type of pesticide being used.

Neem-based pesticides may also be effective against Fall armyworm.

Mr. Mweruka says farmers are already more aware of Fall armyworm than they were last season, and the government is supporting various interventions.

Charles Wandera is a farmer in Labongo village in Masindi district. He says: “The [Fall] armyworm has been a problem and is still a problem. All along, we have been lacking information to fight the armyworm, but from the time we got a chance with this project with Radio Kitara, we are getting information Mondays and Fridays. In a week, we are getting the information twice.”

He is happy with the information he is receiving, saying: “We are getting the knowledge and skills to fight it. I tried Stryker [a chemical pesticide] and it worked for me. Through the radio, I got to know that it is a good chemical to use, so I have managed to control the pest.”

Fall armyworm is continuing to march through farmers’ fields across Africa, with 38 countries now dealing with this foreign invader, according to Deutsche-Welle.

For more information on identifying and controlling the Fall armyworm, read the Backgrounder produced by Farm Radio International and CABI: