In January this year, Brighton Zimba, a farmer from Chipala Extension Planning Area (EPA) in Kasungu, noticed some pests chewing up his healthy maize.
Zimba had no idea what the wormy pests were, but their raid greatly reduced his yield which has been on the wane for years.
“We usually have familiar pests like stalk borers. This was a different experience,” says Zimba.
The foe Zimba faced the last farming season was fall armyworm, a new pest which ravaged almost 2 000 hectares of maize in the country and left thousands of farmers in southern Africa worried too.
Native to the tropical-subtropical western hemisphere, fall armyworm is a new threat in Malawi.
On the continent, it was first spotted in Nigeria in January last year and has spread in maize crop fields across the country.
The armyworms attacked half of maize acreage in Chipala EPA.
“This area was one of the worst affected. The bad thing was that most farmers didn’t know that this was a new pest and it was initially difficult for us to give out proper information,” explains agricultural extension development officer James Maduka.
Information about the pest was also coming in bits and pieces, he says.
His counterpart in Mtunthama EPA, Helen Maona, echoes the dilemma faced by farmers and extension officers.
“Initially, the farmers didn’t know what to do as the worms damaged maize leaves and stems. They experimented with different pesticides at their disposal. It worked for some, but it was like shooting in the dark,” she says.
Cypermethrin, which proved effective in controlling the pest, was usually in short supply as demand soared.
Now, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development has stressed the need to solve the puzzle.
But extension workers lament that information about the fall armyworm remains scanty and hard-to-reach.
Some of them have no clear idea about this new pest.
“The messages we got were in English and most farmers have problems comprehending them. Since there are a few extension workers, information has to go to lead farmers too,” says Maduka.
But there is some great news.
“Because of our response plan and partnership, Malawi is considered ahead. Currently, there are seven known insecticides that have proven to be effective,” says George Phiri, the assistant representative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
However, pesticides the world over have also been blamed for breeding resistance, high costs and causing imbalance in the ecosystem.
Phiri says the future of the war on fall armyworms lies in integrated pest management (IPM), a system of solving pest attacks while minimising risks to people and the environment.
The ecosystem-based strategy focuses on long-term prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques such as biological control, habitat manipulation and modification of cultural practices.
“Some of IPM includes agronomic-based reduction of fall armyworms where crops are planted early before pests build up; biological based reduction where natural enemies—predators, parasites, pathogens and competitors—are used to control pests and also plant based where botanical insecticides and indigenous substances are used,” he says.
Phiri, however, says IPM cannot work if farmers lack knowledge.
This method has received backing from experts as one of the safer ways to deal with the pest.
The ministry also promotes this method among other strategies.
Recently, Albert Changaya, the controller of agriculture extension and technical services in the ministry, gave an update on interventions to deal with pest.
IPM emerged as the chief intervention.
“The Department of Agricultural Research Services is planning to conduct a study to determine the biology and behaviour of fall armyworms in the local environment and develop locally adapted IPM strategies,” says Changaya.
With the exploration still underway, experts recommend the use of some pesticides.
According to Changaya, the recommended pesticides include Steward EC, Cypermethrin 20EC, Belt 480EC, Deltanex 25EC, Bulldock EC, Chlorpyrifos EC, Karate EC, Match Fit and Decis forte.
The ministry has produced fall armyworms factsheets in English, Chichewa and Tumbuka.
Some areas have already received first rains marking the start of the rainy season.
The major difference is that farmers haunted by memories of last year’s damage now know the pest they are likely to face.
To be forewarned is to be forearmed. n