Fighting armyworms traditionally

Farmers hit hard by fall armyworms are turning to bitter concoctions to eliminate the invasive pest confirmed in 2016.

Native to the Americas, the pest feeds on almost 80 different crops, including maize.

For Rose Gary, a commercial farmer in Katsalabande Village in Blantyre, the pest attack has been a double blow. For 30 years, she has seen yields falling. However, she is optimistic of a better harvest.

Farmers picking fall armyworms in a maize field

Gary’s family of four children grows cassava, cowpeas, maize and other crops for sale.

But fall armyworms have forced the family to focus less on struggles to sell their produce than combating the destroyer in their maize field.

“Since fall armyworms arrived in 2017, I yield 12 bags from a plot that produced 30 bags. Unfortunately, pesticides are too expensive,” she explains.

But Gary’s agony mirrors the dilemma of many farmers in Mangochi, Nsanje, Lilongwe and other affected districts.

“We always hope for good yields. The coming of fall armyworms is a disaster,” says Jenala Alfazema, from Kaudzu Village in Traditional Authority Ngabu, Nsanje.

But farmers surrounding Nansundu Scheme in Ntonda, Blantyre, are using locally available materials.

Their weapons include smelly liquids from boiled sundried usipa fish and concoctions from Tephrasia Vogelii shrubs, locally known as ombwe.

According to the scheme members, the strong smell of sundried usipa attracts ants that climb the maize plant to devour the fall armyworms.

They also believe that the bitter leaves of Tephrosia Vogelii poison the pest to death when sprayed on the plant. They pound the leaves, soak the pulp in water for 24 hours and mix the greenish mixture with washing powder to form a greenish liquid they spray on maize plants to poison the attackers.

“The locally available solutions are proving handy as chemicals recommended by government remain too expensive for poor farmers and hazardous to our health,” says Brenda Mtukane, one of the farmers.

The results from the field triggered their village agriculture committee and Ntonda agricultural extension development coordinator to approach experts at Bvumbwe Research Station to gauge if the local solutions really work.

Assistant researcher Mwaiwawo Nkomaula says the field study will help protect the staple grain.

She says: “We have various pesticides being sold on the market to deal with fall armyworms, but the chemicals are somehow expensive for farmers.

“As such, some farmers are using locally available materials, but there are no scientific findings on how effective these natural measures are for farmers nationwide to adopt them.”

Nkomaula states that tangible findings from the trial farms will come after the harvesting to gauge differences in yield.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAid) is funding the trials as part of efforts to strengthen agricultural and nutrition extension (Sane) in Mchinji, Lilongwe, Dedza, Ntcheu, Machinga, Balaka, Mangochi, Blantyre, Chikwawa and Nsanje.

The project aims to improve coordination between farmers and the districts’ agricultural extension services systems.

Following several desperate measures, farmers in these districts are working closely with extension workers to wipe out fall armyworms before they wipe out their crops.

“The coordination has helped acquire necessary tools and skills to make the research successful,” says Elina Mapereka, a farmer from Katsalabande.

Sane chief of party Clodina Chowa applauds the waning gap between farmers and extension workers.

“We want to instill a sense of ownership and self-reliance in farmers and to enhance collaboration among various players in  the provision of agricultural extension and advisory services,” she says.

However, the big question is whether the farmers’ desperate measures will prove successful.

Still, the farmers in Ntonda are optimistic that ombwe is working wonders in numbing the pest. Their counterpart in Nsanje have replaced ombwe with neem leaves just as those in Mangochi crash liwinji tubers and mwandiyambadala leaves to eliminate the destructive pest.

To them, ending fall armyworms attack is central to eliminating hunger and poverty in line with Sustainable Development Goals. Goal number two of the global agenda to end poverty by 2030 requires governments to end hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition.

However, pest attacks slow progress towards zero hunger, with two in every five children in the country affected by stunting—a height-for-age indicator of malnutrition. By building farmers’ capacity to confront challenges affecting them, they implement strategies that work in their cultural and economic setting.

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