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Biftu Radio helps farmers respond to locust infestation

While COVID-19 captured the attention of the world, several countries in East Africa were already facing an additional threat: locusts.

In Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia, swarms of locusts are hitting fields, devouring much in their path.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization warns that the locust swarms “represent an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods in East Africa.”

“Most farmers are just worried because they don’t know if they should focus themselves to avoid catching COVID-19, or if they should go out to look after their animals,” says Velma Odwori, a presenter at Biftu Radio in Marsabit county, one of the counties in Kenya hit particularly hard by the locusts. A first wave of locusts arrived in East Africa in January, and by June the second wave could be 400 times larger.

The World Food Programme warned in April [1] that an estimated 265 million people worldwide could be pushed to starvation by year’s end as a result of the pandemic. Starvation is a very real threat for Kenyan farmers facing the dual risk of COVID-19 and a locust invasion.

Biftu Radio’s listeners are mainly pastoralists, says Ms. Odwori. They rely on grass to feed their animals. But with the locust infestation, grass is becoming scarcer. And with COVID-19 precautions preventing large gatherings, moving animals to better pastures has become more difficult.

Farm Radio International has developed a series of eight radio spots [2] that broadcasters can translate, record, and play on their radio stations throughout the day so their audience has the key facts about locusts.

Some of the spots focus on these facts: locust swarms can, for example, fly up to 150 km per day. Some tell farmers what they can do if they see a swarm: namely, report it to the authorities so they know where to spray that day. Early spraying is one of the few measures that can substantially reduce the impact of the locusts. Other spots look at how farmers can stay safe while spraying happens: “If spraying is happening in your area, stay indoors until the spraying is finished.”

The spots are short, which makes them easier to translate into local languages. Ms. Odwori says she’s been translating the resources into Borona and Swahili, the most common languages spoken by her listeners.

She is also receiving important information from her listeners, including where the locust swarms are moving. “With the locusts, we mostly track them,” says Ms. Odwori. “Listeners would tell us where the locusts are and we would tell the government.”

As the swarms travel quickly, keeping tabs on their location helps government sprayers do what they can to control them.

But now Ms. Odwori and her colleagues have an additional burden: supporting their communities to deal with the locusts while also keeping listeners informed on how to protect themselves against the coronavirus. It’s not an easy task to balance the two.

Elsewhere in the country, others are facing the same challenge.

“Farmers are allowed to go to the field on special conditions: masks, social distancing, sanitizing. Some of them use cloth [mouth and nose coverings] because they cannot afford the sanitizer or the masks,” says Moses Omondi, Farm Radio’s Program Officer in Kenya. He adds that farmers must also set up sanitizing stations if they plan to hire labourers.

Still, many, understandably, choose not to go to the farm.

“The end impact will be smaller harvests because most farmers only want to work with people within their households. And while that means labour costs are reduced, that [also] means smaller harvests,” says Mr. Omondi.

Radio is particularly important during times when farmers cannot gather together or meet with extension agents.

“Radio is very important because most people here are not rich, but most can afford a radio. So most rely fully on radio for information,” says Ms. Odwori. “They really listen to what they are told so we sensitize them and they really listen. What we tell them they believe, because we pass along information on how it relates to them.”

It’s an uphill battle right now, both against the locusts and to convince her listeners of the real threat COVID-19 presents. Still, Ms. Odwori is not giving up anytime soon. “We are just trying because it is a service to humanity.”

This story originally appeared as a blog post from Farm Radio International. To read more blog posts, go to: https://farmradio.org/news/ [3]