Under an oppressive afternoon sun, Nzuri Shabani and her two daughters walk through Mrs. Shabani’s maize field. The leaves are green and healthy, which fills her with joy.
She stops from time to time and touches certain plants delicately. Her eyes are full of hope. She has come a long way in the last few years.
Mrs. Shabani is 49 years old and grows maize on a 800 square metre plot in Rutshuru territory, 70 kilometres northeast of Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
In December 2016, Fall armyworm attacked many fields in the territory. Mrs. Shabani’s maize plants were destroyed.
She says: “The ordeal started in the second season of 2016-17. During that time, I saw the leaves of my maize plants change colour and become yellow and strange. Other leaves were torn. That was the case for almost all of the plants in my field… All that effort for nothing.”
Mrs. Shabani lost a big part of her harvest, which dropped from nine 50-kg sacks of maize to just four. Her income decreased, and her daughters’ education was in jeopardy.
One of her daughters, Zawadi Rugendabanga, says: “It’s mom who pays for our studies, thanks to the harvest from the maize field. But when the mtekunya [“Fall armyworm” in Swahili] came, it wasn’t easy, and she told my sister and me that if the situation got worse, she would be obliged to pull us out of school. I was afraid for our future.”
Fall armyworm continued to eat through crops. Farmers didn’t have a solution because they knew little about this pest that arrived in Africa from the Americas just two years ago.
Jean Mugiraneza is 36 years old and grows maize on a 630 square metre plot about a kilometre from Mrs. Shabani’s farm in Rutshuru. He too watched helplessly as the Fall armyworm overran his field. He says: “We saw the leaves of our plants become tattered day after day, but what could we do? We had no idea, and we hoped that the worms would disappear on their own.… But instead we saw that the situation got worse.”
His maize production dropped from six 50-kg sacks to four.
Cornelius Sylla Visseso is an agronomist and coordinator of an agronomists’ association in Kivu, eastern DRC. For a long time, he was aware of the distress and calls for help from farmers in the region. With his colleagues, he did some research and came up with three methods that he recommends for managing Fall armyworm.
The first is to carefully prepare the soil by tilling thoroughly and deeply to destroy Fall armyworm pupae. This method is used before planting in fields that have already been affected by Fall armyworm.
The second method is to use insecticides that kill the larvae on the crops. The spray must reach the leaf nodes where the caterpillars hide. The node is where the stem intersects with the leaf.
But few farmers in the area use this method because they cannot afford insecticides.
Mrs. Shabani chose the third option instead: monitoring her field for the presence of the pest, and for plant damage. This method consists of walking around the plot to identify affected plants, pull them out, and burn them far from the field. This was difficult, but she was able to do it thanks to relatives and neighbouring farmers who helped her for a month.
She says the method was very effective; her maize plants are no longer affected by Fall armyworm and she is hoping for a better harvest this year. According to Mr. Visseso, the three methods are approved by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization as ways to manage Fall armyworm. The expert adds that they are all effective.
Known by the scientific name Spodoptera frugiperda, Fall armyworm caused a great deal of damage in the second season of 2016-17. Some Congolese farmers lost two-thirds of their crops. The pest eats mostly maize, but may feed on dozens of other plants, including cereal crops, sugar cane, groundnuts, soy, and cotton.
Photo: Fall armyworm found on a maize cob in Tanzania