Douglas Kinyua scares away a swarm of locusts from his farm. Stanley Nyakwana Ongwae photo
While COVID-19 has captured the attention of the world, several countries in East Africa are facing an additional threat: locusts.
In Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia swarms of locusts are hitting fields, devouring much of what is in their path.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 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. This is the second wave of locusts to hit the country, another is expected in June and July.
The World Food Programme warned in April that an estimated 265 million people worldwide could be pushed to starvation by year’s end as a result of the pandemic. It’s a very real threat for farmers in Kenya facing the dual threat of COVID-19 and locust invasions.
Biftu Radio’s listeners are mainly pastoralists, says Velma. They rely on grass to feed their animals. But with the locust infestation, that grass is becoming scarcer, and under COVID-19 precautions preventing gathering, moving those animals to better pastures has become more difficult.
“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.”
There are no easy solutions, but Farm Radio International is working with broadcasters to get them resources they can use on air to support farmers in their listening communities.
We’ve developed a series of eight radio spots that broadcasters can translate, record, and play on their radio stations throughout the day.
Some focus on the 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. Others look at how farmers can stay safe while spraying happens: “If spraying is happening in your area, stay indoors until the spraying is finished.”
“With the locusts we mostly track them,” says Velma. “Listeners would tell us where the locusts are and we would tell the government.”
As the swarms travel so quickly, keeping tabs on where they are helps government sprayers do what they can to control them.
Now Velma and her colleagues have an additional burden: supporting their communities in dealing with the locusts, while also keeping listeners informed on how to stay safe in the face of the coronavirus. It’s not an easy task to balance.
“Radio is very important because most people here are not rich, but most can afford a radio.”
Elsewhere in the country, others are facing that same challenge.
“Farmers are allowed to go to the field on special conditions, masks, social distancing, sanitizing. Some of them use cloth 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 on hiring labourers.
Still, many, understandably, chose 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 means smaller harvests,” he says.
In lieu of face-to-face information, this makes the work broadcasters are doing all the more essential.
“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 Velma. “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 the information on how it relates to them.”
Velma says she’s been translating the resources provided by Farm Radio into Borona and Swahili, the languages spoken by her listeners, and using them on air.
It’s an uphill battle right now, both against the locusts and to convince her listeners of the real threat COVID-19 presents. Still, Velma is not giving up anytime soon.
“We are just trying because it is a service to humanity.”
About the author
Tara Sprickerhoff works as a communications officer for Farm Radio International. With a background in journalism, storytelling is close to Tara’s heart. Her specialties: covering orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, wildfires, and uncovering the whimsy in the everyday.