Fall Armyworm Hampers Malawi Farmers’ Recovery Efforts

Across large parts of Africa, recovery efforts from Cyclone Idai are being hampered by the increasing threat of the Fall Armyworm.

words and primary photographs by Deogracias Benjamin Kalima

additional photographs and video by Hilda Lem

Aneyas Kalichero is a hardworking subsistence farmer from the Shire Valley district of Chikwawa, Milawi, where she owns and manages a crop field by the banks of the Shire river. Back in March, she was severely affected by the floods caused by Cyclone Idai, which washed away her maize, sugarcane, and pigeon pea crops. Now, she is out in her field again, working hard on winter cropping to ensure the food security of her household.

Despite the obvious problems that flooding causes for agriculture, and the hazards it presents to life, it can nonetheless be followed by unexpected benefits. When the floodwaters subside, for example, the affected lands become fertile ground, usable by savvy farmers for winter cropping using residual moisture. Through the winter cropping yield, farmers may be able recoup some of their flood losses.

Today, however, across large parts of Africa, recovery efforts by farmers like Kalichero are being hampered by continued attacks from the Fall Armyworm (FAW). This is a pest that, since the 2016/17 farming season, has been attacking crops of the grass family, such as maize, sorghum and millet. The pest affects the maize crop at whorl, tasseling and cob formation, and significantly reduce the farm’s productivity.

Special thanks to Hilda Lem for the following photographs and video

In Malawi, a total of 300,000 hectares of farmland have been affected so far, reducing crop harvest by about 41 percent according to estimates by the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development. In a country where maize is a staple for over 80 percent of its 17 million people, the severity of the damage caused by this pest is a matter of significant concern.

For Kalichero, the pest is a major nuisance to her resilience and yield expectations, and represents a significant setback. She depends solely on crop agriculture for her livelihood. From her half-acre field, she gets about 600 kilogrammes of maize harvest, which keeps her family of five food secure up to the next harvest.  However, this time around, she says she won’t harvest any tangible yield. All of her maize plants been heavily affected, with most having had their stems and leaves completely consumed by the pest. She expects not to even cover this season’s investments into fertilizers and seed.

“Having lost all my crops including one acre of already matured maize to floods in March, I had expected to salvage some food for my family with winter cropping,” she informed us, “but with the severe Fall Armyworm attack on my maize, I have not even recovered the cost of farm inputs. I don’t have an alternative income from which I can use to feed my family of three. This will surely leave us food insecure for the next nine months.”

She says that, with her household now in dire need, she will be forced to spend most of her time doing piece works in order to raise money to buy food, time she could have used for a now-abandoned plan of building a new home. The one she currently occupies suffered terrible damage during a hailstorm earlier this year, so much so that repairs have been deemed impossible.

The Effectiveness of Pesticides

Edward Chimbaka, a small-scale maize farmer, faces a similar predicament. His entire one-acre maize field was affected by the pest during the last farming season, and this year is shaping up to be just as bad. He says that, barely two weeks after planting, his maize field was riddled with Armyworm symptoms, which include tattered leaves and stalks.

Upon first noticing the pest, Chimbaka was dumbfounded as to how to combat it, having never before dealt with this particular problem. A friend, and fellow farmer, from a nearby area advised him to buy a pesticide by the name of Snokoron, which is mixed with a set amount of water and sprayed on the affected crops. He has been applying the pesticide since that time, and has seen some improvements.

Male farmer using a shoulder-mounted, pump-action chemical dispenser, directing the units wand at armyworm-affected plants.
Edward Chimbaka spraying pesticides on maize plants

“I have been applying Snokoron chemical on my crops,” he informed us, “and there is significant reduction of the pest attack. However, the pesticide is costly as one need to apply it once a week.”

For some, however, the outlook is less positive. Maness Dinala, a 68-year-old farmer, says she is unable to bear the cost of such pesticides. She (and many struggling farmers just like her) is relying on government to provide assistance in the form of effective products that will allow her to combat the devastating pest, which she said has reduced her to the status of a food beggar. Just two years ago, she was food sufficient.

Dinala wonders where these pests are coming from. She tells us that in all her long years of farming she has never seen a maize crop disease as devastating as the Fall Armyworm, adding that the pest comes just after another strange pest attacked eucalyptus trees, almost completely defoliating them and greatly reducing the amount of forest cover in regions where these trees are prolific.

With the country’s recent general elections no longer creating a distraction, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development is refocusing it’s efforts and working hard on the FAW problem. According to spokesperson Hamilton Chimala, the ministry is doing everything it can to find efficient means to deal with the strenuous pest. He mentions a recent trial of Cypermethrin 200EC, which his ministry had provided to some farmers across the country. According to the feedback of farmers, it’s failing to prove effective, and so efforts are now being made to source a wider range of products.

“Fall Armyworm has really affected maize production in Malawi for the past three farming seasons,” Mr. Chimala said to us, “which has resulted in reduced output. As a ministry we procured Cypermethrin 200EC pesticide to help contain the pest but it has proved not effective.”

A green maize plant, with visible chew damage from the Fall Armyworm
An affected maize crop
Closeup of a green maize plant, with visible chew damage from the Fall Armyworm
Up close: damage caused by the Fall Armyworm

Fall Armyworm, a foreign pest believed to have originated in the Americas, was first reported in Malawi in 2016. It was intitially detected in Blantyre and Machinga districts, in the southern province, before spreading to the central and northern parts of the country at an alarming speed and posing a significant threat to the country’s food security. The situation was exacerbated by the slow response of agricultural authorities, who initially believed it to be a maize stalk borer due to its apparent resemblance in terms of signs of feeding damage in sampled infested crops.

The emergence of the Fall Armyworm has added a new threat to maize production in Malawi, where typically the greatest threat to crop yield is drought. Stakeholders now need to work hard to find a lasting solution to this devastating pest, which is threatening the food security of millions of people.