Double despair in Ethiopia: Drought and then the damaging Fall armyworm

Karen Hampson, right, walks through lush, green fields near Sodo, in southern Ethiopia.

As I drove westward from the city of Sodo, in southern Ethiopia, the fields were lush, green, and full of a variety of crops. In the afternoon, we left to drive in the other direction, to an area where it had not rained for over a month. The area was dry, with fewer trees, and the crops in the field are small and yellowing, leaves curling.

Drought has hit this region hard.

This was June, and 7.7 million Ethiopians were already in need of emergency aid.

But now, it’s not just drought that’s putting these farmers’ food security at risk. It’s clear that they will also have to contend with an infestation of the Fall armyworm.

Zenebech Gushlo is a farmer in the Abela Sipa kebele in Wolayita Zone, in the SNNP region of Ethiopia. She is a member of a community listening group, tuning in to Sodo Fana FM’s farmer program, Murutta (which means Production). She gathers with her neighbours to listen to the radio and to discuss bean farming.

Unfortunately, the short rains were not as plentiful as expected, and they completely lost their bean crop planted in that season. The second drought is also creating stress on their maize farms.

And a different topic is preoccupying many of their discussions. The Fall armyworm is taking over their fields — a second disaster to hit the region.

The Fall armyworm is an invasive pest, native to the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the Americas. It feeds on 80 different crop species, lays hundreds of eggs, and can travel quickly because it’s not a worm, but in fact a caterpillar, which becomes a moth in the adult stage.

Even as we drove past, we could see white moths fluttering the fields. That is how prevalent Fall armyworms are in this area of Ethiopia.

Zenebech says they have seen pests similar to the Fall armyworm, but on a smaller scale.

Farmers are used to dealing with the African armyworm, but the Fall armyworm is “different — and is damaging everything,” Zenebech says.

The African armyworm often does damage to maize leaves, but much of the crop will survive. The Fall armyworm is more voracious. It can attack the growing point, damaging the crop in an early stage. It can also bore into the cobs, damaging the maize at a later stage.

Fall armyworm can cause up to 70% crop loss. It is estimated that African farmers will lose $3 billion of maize crops this year, which will seriously impact food security for farmers.

And it’s not just maize that the Fall armyworm eats.

In Ethiopia, the agricultural bureau has advised that farmers kill the worms in the fields, and so entire families will stand among the crops, picking worms off the plants. But Zenebech says the Fall armyworm is difficult to control.

She is praying for rain and hopes the damage will be minimal. She already lost her bean crop to drought, and now she fears they will lose the maize crop as well.

When we ask what they will do, she just shrugs.

About the author  
Karen Hampson is FRI’s regional programs manager for East and Southern Africa. She develops new program partnerships and supports and administers FRI’s projects in Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, and Mozambique. Talking to radio listeners is one of the most important and enjoyable parts of her job.

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