Stanley Nyakwana Ongwae | March 16, 2020
Douglas Kinyua’s farm in Kamiu village, Kenya, is covered in millions of locusts. As he swats at the swarm with a banana leaf broom, he worries he will lose his entire two-acre maize crop. A mature locust eats its weight in vegetation every day. As locusts spread through Kenya and the rest of East Africa, many farmers are worrying about their food security now and in the coming months. Some are harvesting early or planting root crops they hope will survive the locusts. Some are slowing locust multiplication by diverting the young hoppers, who are unable to fly, into trenches. But such preventative measures are small-scale. The most effective way to manage huge locust swarms remains aerial spraying, which the Kenyan government is undertaking.
It’s around midday and Douglas Kinyua is trying to scare away a swarm of locusts, swatting with a banana leaf broom. He stops and wipes streaks of sweat from his face, then starts chasing the insects again.
Mr. Kinyua is afraid of losing his green grams, cowpeas, and his entire two acres of maize, which is almost ready for harvest. He shouts loudly, “Go away!” He explains, “I have never seen such a huge army of locusts before. They are going to eat all our crops. May God have mercy on us.”
Mr. Kinyua lives in Kamiu village in Embu county, about 250 kilometres northeast of Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya. A swarm of locusts has landed in the area, causing fear and panic among the farmers in his village and the surrounding areas.
Locust swarms can cause great devastation and could destroy Mr. Kinyua’s crops in a single day. Individual locusts can eat their weight in vegetation every day, and a typical swarm contains 40-80 million locusts.
Mr. Kinyua hopes that chasing and scaring the locusts will help, but the huge numbers of locusts are overwhelming.
According to the Cabinet Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, Peter Munya, as of March 10, the locusts were present in 26 counties across northern and central Kenya, with the most affected counties being Marsabit, Isiolo, Samburu, Turkana, and Garissa.
Farmer Richard Ndwiga lives about a kilometre away from Mr. Kinyua. A swarm of locusts descended on his maize crop and caused some destruction in his one-acre field. To deal with the situation, Mr. Ndwiga and his wife are busy harvesting maize that is not fully mature in order to save something from their farm.
He explains: “We don’t want to take any chances with these locusts. We are removing every maize crop that is about to mature or is ready for harvest from the farm before locusts destroy all our crops.”
The fear in Kamiu village is the same in many Kenyan counties. But the situation is different about 300 kilometres away in Narok county, south of Kenya. As of Feb. 27, locusts had not reached the area.
Farmers in these southern counties have already received warnings about locusts and are harvesting early, digging trenches, and planning to grow tuber crops and onions.
Isaac Lempaya is a farmer in Narok county. He says he wants to plant onions and potatoes so he will have something to harvest even if locusts invade the area. He says, “My onions will be very safe in case the locusts come to my farm any time soon.”
Wycliff Njoroge is the agronomist in Nakuru town, just north of Embu county. He explains that, even though onion bulbs or potato tubers may not be safe from locust attack, there is a better chance that the locusts will not fully destroy the crops.
Mr. Njoroge explains: “Tubers and bulbs grow underground. If locusts attack, chances of survival of the crop will highly depend on its age. The younger the crops are, the higher the degree of destruction.”
He continues: “By the second month of growth, the bulbs and tubers are now fattening and they can survive even without their vegetative parts because at that time, they are only waiting to mature.”
In Kitui county, where locusts have already attacked fields, farmers are digging to expose locust eggs as one way of reducing locust breeding. They are also digging small, two-foot-deep trenches around their fields to trap the young locusts that cannot fly. When the young locusts are in the trenches, farmers can easily collect or destroy them.
Some farmers have adopted greenhouse farming and are feeling safe from locusts. Allan Obara is a farmer from Chitago village in Kisii county, in southwestern Kenya. He says that his capsicum and tomatoes are safe in his greenhouse.
He says, “If many farmers adopted greenhouse farming, then we would be assured of protection from locusts.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Kinyua says he will have to rely on his two cows for food and income. They give him about 10 litres of milk a day. But he’s worried about finding enough feed for his animals since the locusts have destroyed pastures.
He will need to grow short-term crops to reduce the risk of food insecurity. Mr. Kinyua explains: “I am considering growing short-term crops like beans, Irish potatoes, and tomatoes, which mature in about three months. I am also optimistic that I will raise about 300,000 Kenyan shillings (about $2,890 US) to start greenhouse farming.”