It is when I arrived in Malawi last August that I heard for the first time about fall armyworm (FAW).
It was difficult to believe the amount of damages this pest had caused since its first appearance in the country, in 2016. And the fact that FAW has a special preference for maize makes it even worse for Malawi, a country that relies heavily, too much, on this crop.
Pesticides have been used, not only in Malawi, to try to control the spread of the pest. Pesticides can help in the immediate response to control the pest, but they are not a sustainable solution. Repetitive use of pesticides creates resistance. The more pesticide a farmer uses, the less the product will be effective.
A farmer will therefore be caught in a vicious circle of spending more of his/her resources to produce less food. Not to mention the fact that pesticides are harmful, for the people applying it and for the environment. Malawi does not need more pesticide residues flowing into its rivers and water resources.
As European Union (EU), we are strongly promoting alternative methods to control this pest. Last month I went to Mzuzu and I was inspired by the stories of smallholder farmers. Some of them are already effectively relying on methods that are simple, affordable and locally available.
Farmers meticulously scout their fields every day to look for natural enemies to fall armyworm. And they exist. Ants, for example, like to feast on FAW larvae. Farmers also produce their own botanical pesticides, using plant extracts from neem and Tephrosia.
And farmers have realised that FAW infestations are reduced if they intercrop maize with other plants, in particular legumes. This is a win-win situation, as legumes improve soil fertility and provide much needed proteins to the farming households.
Smallholders and extension workers are at the frontline in dealing with FAW and other pests. Their knowledge and skills are the best tools available to control pests.
It is for this reason that the EU is partnering with the Government of Malawi, the German Technical Cooperation and FAO to provide extension workers and farmers in Mzuzu and throughout Malawi with hands-on trainings on good agronomic practices, under our Kulima programme.
The farmers I visited are successfully experimenting different pest treatments for their crops. They try different agronomic practices. They decide which crops to plant and which varieties. They are constantly experimenting, learning by their trials and errors, exchanging knowledge with peers, with extension workers and with researchers.
Speaking about the latter, one of the exciting innovations of Kulima is that it brings together farmers and researchers; it makes them talk to each other.
Researchers provide solutions to concrete problems that farmers are experiencing in their fields.
And farmers nourish the research process through their experiences, trials, observations and traditional knowledge. EU is currently funding research trials to develop integrated pest management practices of FAW in Malawi, to confirm that those farmers’ innovations are effective in the fields.
Kulima has been implemented since 2016 and will run for several years still. I am encouraged by the promising signs I have already seen that smallholders can become drivers of change. A more sustainable, more productive and pest-free Malawian agriculture is possible. n