Op-ed : Fall armyworm invasion, a wake-up call for Africa


By Michelle Adelman, an advocate for plant-based protein food and founder of Accite Holdings, which focuses on technology-led, sustainable agriculture projects in Africa.

The outbreak of the fall armyworm (FAW) in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa has left a trail of crop devastation in its wake, threatening to add further strain to food security and leading to possible import bans of agricultural products in the near future. The impacts of this could be catastrophic for Africa, the poorest and most underdeveloped continent in the world. This invasion is definitely a wake-up call for Africa and the rest of the world.

Originally from America and regarded as a quarantine pest, the fall armyworm is an insect that transforms into a moth. It was first detected in central and western Africa in 2016 and quickly spread across almost all of sub-Saharan Africa due to its strong flying ability.  It can fly nearly 1,000 miles in just 30 hours and can easily migrate to neighbouring countries.  The female moth can lay up to a total of 1,000 eggs in her lifetime, and in its larvae stage, can cause significant damage to crops if not managed appropriately. It loves maize but also feeds on more than 80 species of plants including rice, sorghum, millet, sugarcane, vegetable crops and cotton. In sub-Saharan Africa, over 200 million people depend on maize for food security as it is a staple cereal crop grown by farmers.

The FAW has already caused more than $13 billion in crop losses and is estimated to cost a further $6 billion a year if not contained.  The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations revealed that by February 2018, only three out of 54 African States had not reported infestations.

In September 2017, the UK Aid published a report called “Fall Armyworm: Impacts and Implications for Africa”, which was commissioned by the UK Department for International Development. It found that the pest could potentially cause maize yield losses in a range of 8.3 million to 20.6 million tonnes in 12 of Africa’s countries per annum. Value of losses was estimated between $2,481 million and $6,187 million. At the time of the report’s publication, only 28 countries in Africa had confirmed the invasion.

Even prior to the arrival of the pest, food security in Africa was a headache. In 2014, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that some 233 million people in sub-Saharan Africa were suffering from hunger.  Soaring food prices compounded food insecurity along with climate change and drastically changing farming activities.  Last year, the crippling El-Nino drought scorched much of the region, hitting crop production and leaving millions in need of food aid, Reuters reported.

Meanwhile, the farming areas in Cape Town, South Africa, continues to experience a widespread drought, which began in 2015. Water rationing was implemented when dam levels declined to critically low levels, and the City announced plans for “Day Zero”, when water supply will largely be shut off.

With all these factors, food security in Africa should be at the top of the agenda for all African policy makers because a ban on Africa’s agricultural produce could be on the cards if the infestation is not dealt with immediately. The fall armyworm is classified as a quarantine pest that has caused extensive crop damage, particularly to the region’s staple food which most African nations depend on.  Such a ban could leave Africa paralysed in terms of food aid and create massive implications for the economic growth of the continent.

So far, the invasion of the fall armyworm has resulted in some containment measures being undertaken, but none are long-term or sustainable. The FAO said that measures like insecticide applications were costly and may not work due to resistance, poor application techniques or low-quality pesticides which could negatively affect the insects natural enemies.

So while towns rapidly grow and Africa’s population continues to boom, technology and innovation may just be the key in finding small solutions that can help mitigate the risk of decreasing food security. The value of small innovations means that farmers can start tackling the issue one small step at a time, before it’s too late.

Already taking the first step is Nesta, on behalf of Feed the Future, Land O’ Lakes International Development (LOL) and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR). They have launched a competition targeting innovators from around the globe which focuses on digital solutions and approaches that provide timely, context-specific information that will enable smallholder farmers and those who support them to identify, treat, and track incidence of the fall armyworm in Africa.  The US Agency for International Development (USAID), together LOL and FFAR have contributed $400,000 in prize awards, and the winners will have a chance to develop their prototypes.

Feed the Future works hand in hand with partner countries to develop their agriculture sectors and break the cycle of poverty and hunger. In particular, it hopes to increase agricultural activity, boost harvests and incomes for rural smallholder farmers, generate opportunities for economic growth and trade in developing countries.

USAID’s Digital Inclusion team believes that with advances in digital communications, social networks, satellite imagery, electronic data collection and sharing, sensing technologies, crowdsourcing, and the global movement to share open data, more information than ever can be efficiently communicated and made relevant for farmers. While digital tools are not the only solutions to FAW, technological solutions can help serve as a force multiplier to an already strained advisory service.

And although the FAW invasion is a wake-up call for Africa and the rest of the world, steps can be taken from now to help farmers alleviate the burden.

In this regard, you can help find a solution to this FAW problem by entering your innovative idea to the Challenge Prize competition. The entry period is from 28 March to 14 May. Go to fallarmywormtech.challenges.org for more details to learn more about fall armyworm and how to apply for the competition.

The Fall Armyworm Tech Prize is run by Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre, which uses prizes as a tool to stimulate  innovative solutions to tackle  some of the world’s biggest challenges.