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Battling the armyworm September 23rd, 2018 by

In the 1500s, when men on sailing ships were casually spreading crop plants from one continent to the next, maize came to Africa. Fortunately many of the maize pests stayed behind, in the Americas. But slowly, trade and travel are re-uniting maize with its pests. A caterpillar called the fall armyworm is the latest American pest to reach Africa, and in two years it has spread across the continent, threatening one of Africa’s staple food crops.

Just as maize originally came to Africa without its American pests, the fall armyworm arrived without its natural enemies, including a couple of dozen species of tiny parasitic wasps. This has helped the armyworm to spread faster.

Governments panicked over the arrival of the fall armyworm. Some tried massive campaigns to eradicate it manually, as in Rwanda, where large teams of people destroyed the caterpillars by hand. Others began widespread campaigns to spray farmers’ fields with insecticide. Fortunately, there are alternatives to insecticides, as explained in two new videos, directed by Paul Van Mele and beautifully filmed by Marcella Vrolijks, both of AgroInsight.

The videos explain that fall armyworm damage often looks worse than it really is. The caterpillars eat gaping holes in the maize leaves and defecate what looks like wet sawdust all over the plants. But the plants usually recover and produce a full ear, in spite of early damage to the young plant.

Conveniently for farmers, the fall armyworm is also a cannibal. Each one lives alone in the maize whorl and eats any smaller armyworm that comes in. So a maize plant rarely has to suffer more than one armyworm at a time.

Although the armyworm left its specialized natural enemies behind, once it arrived in Africa it met with generalist, native predators like ants, earwigs, ladybird beetles and other beneficial insects that soon began to attack and eat the caterpillars.

The FAO (the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization) organized farmer field schools to teach farmers armyworm ecology and control. Farmers who took these schools were soon using techniques from Latin America, such as applying soil to the maize whorls. But farmers in Kenya also created innovations of their own, such as rubbing cooking grease onto the maize plant to attract ants to kill armyworms, and sprinkling fine sand mixed with tobacco snuff into the maize whorls.

Farmer field schools are an excellent way to teach insect ecology, but field schools only reach a small percentage of the farmers who need the new information. Fortunately, the farmers who have not been able to take field schools will be able to learn from those who have, by watching the fall armyworm videos, which are available for free in English, French, Amharic, Kiswahili and Ki-Embu, with Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish versions coming soon. More translations will help to spread the word about non-chemical control of fall armyworm.

Watch or download the fall armyworm videos

Scouting for fall armyworms

Killing fall armyworms naturally

Related blogs

Armies against armies

Innovating with local knowledge

Further reading

Poisot, Anne-Sophie, Allan Hruska, Marjon Fredrix, and Koko Nzeza 2018 Integrated management of the Fall Armyworm on maize: A guide for Farmer Field Schools in Africa. FAO.

Our current knowledge of fall armyworm ecology owes a lot to earlier research in Latin America, including:

Andrews, Keith L. and José Rutilio Quezada 1989 Manejo Integrado de Plagas Insectiles en la Agricultura: Estado Actual y Futuro. El Zamorano, Honduras: Departamento de Protección Vegetal, Escuela Agrícola Panamericana.

Acknowledgement

The videos on fall armyworm are developed in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

Photos by Eric Boa.

The scientific name of the fall armyworm is Spodoptera frugiperda (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae).

Veterinarians and traditional animal health care August 19th, 2018 by

It is unfortunate that not more is done to safeguard and value traditional knowledge.

In Pune, Maharastra, the Indian NGO Anthra has devoted a great part of its energy in documenting traditional animal health knowledge and practices across India. Dr. Nitya Ghotge along with a team of women veterinarians founded Anthra in 1992 to address the problems faced by communities who reared animals, particularly peasants, pastoralists, adivasis (indigenous peoples of South Asia), dalits (formerly known as untouchables – people outside the caste system), women and others who remained hidden from the gaze of mainstream development.

In their encyclopaedia Plants Used in Animal Care, Anthra has compiled an impressive list of plants used for veterinary purposes and fodder.

To ensure that local communities across the global south benefit from this indigenous knowledge, Anthra started collaborating with one of Access Agriculture’s trained video partners (Atul Pagar) to gradually develop a series of farmer-to-farmer training videos on herbal medicines (see: the Access Agriculture video category on animal health).

While Indian cities are booming and the agro-industry continues its efforts to conquer lucrative markets, many farmers and farmer organisations across the country treasure India’s rich cultural and agricultural heritage. Unfortunately, this is not the case everywhere. In many countries, local knowledge is quickly eroding as the older generation of farmers and pastoralists disappear.

 

A few years ago, I was thrilled to work with traditional Fulani herders in Nigeria, only to discover that none of them still made use of herbal medicines. Even to treat something as simple as ticks, the young herders confidently turned to veterinary drugs. Although the elder people could still readily name the various plants they used to treat various common animal diseases, the accessibility and ease of application of modern drugs meant that none of the herders still used herbal medicines. The risks of such drastic changes quickly became apparent. As we were making a series of training videos on quality milk, which should have no antibiotics or drug residues, we visited a hospital to interview a local doctor.

“If people are well they are not supposed to take antibiotics. If such a person is sick in the future and the sickness requires the use of antibiotics, it would be difficult to cure because such drugs will not work. It can even make the illness more severe,” doctor Periola Amidu Akintayo from the local hospital confided in front of the camera.

Later on, we visited a traditional Fulani cattle market. For years, these markets have been bustling places where the semi-nomadic herders meet buyers from towns. People exchange news on latest events and the weather, but above all assess the quality of the animals and negotiate prices. Animals that look unhealthy or have signs of parasites obviously fetch a lower price. Given that the cattle market is where the Fulani herders meet their fellow herders and clients, I quickly realized why the entire market was surrounded by small agro vet shops. Competition was fierce, and demand for animal drugs was high.

Modern drugs come with an enclosed instruction sheet, but as with pesticides nobody in developing countries reads this advice. To keep costs down, many herders and farmers administer drugs to their own animals, to avoid spending money on a veterinary doctor. Perhaps even more worrying: few people are aware of the risks that modern drugs pose to human health, whether it be from developing resistance to antibiotics or drug residues in food. In organisations like Anthra, socially engaged veterinary doctors merge local knowledge with scientific information, thus playing an undervalued role that deserve more attention. The training videos made with these veterinarians and their farmer allies will hopefully show more people that it is important to bring the best of both worlds together.

Related training videos

Herbal medicine against fever in livestock

Herbal treatment for diarrhoea

Managing cattle ticks

Keeping milk free from antibiotics

Related blogs

Trust that works

Big chicken, little chicken

Nourishing a fertile imagination

Innovating with local knowledge July 22nd, 2018 by

Local knowledge is dynamic and farmers are fast to adapt traditional practices when the need arises, as we saw during a recent filming visit.

The fall armyworm arrived in Africa only in 2016 and is creating panic among farmers and governments alike. International development organisations are quick to ring the bell and up the competition to bid for public funds to respond to evident emergencies.

But farmers can’t always wait for solutions to be developed by researchers or for government support. In an earlier blog, “Armies against armies,” I wrote about John Fundi from Embu County, Kenya, who combined various observations on how ants behave to develop his own solution. Ants like fat and caterpillars, so if you smear fat on the maize stalks you can attract the ants to move up on the plants and eat the caterpillars.

Aaron Njagi shared another interesting innovation based on keen observations. As an herbalist, Aaron knows a lot about which plants can be used to cure people and which ones can be used to kill or repel insect pests. The herbal pesticide that he uses to kill caterpillars in his vegetable crops proved inadequate to control the fall armyworm, so Aaron immediately figured that this pest was not like any other. His herbal mix needed extra strength.

“Just one drop of aloe vera in water is enough to cure people from respiratory problems, so I decided to add the strength of this plant to the mix of plants I use to control the other caterpillars,” he says. On top, he adds chopped chilli for extra bitterness and strength, and then boils the lot. Once the water has cooled down a little, Aaron removes the plants from the water and adds a little snuff tobacco.

“After fermenting the mix for a week in the shade, I can now use it,” he continues, “but you need to dilute it as it is very powerful. I also decided to add a little washing powder before spraying it, so it sticks better to the maize plants.”

Farmers know when something works, and when something doesn’t work. Everywhere we went, we heard that pesticides did not kill the fall armyworm. But Aaron’s mixture works. That he is already asked by his neighbours to spray their fields with his herbal medicine further testifies how fast farmers can innovate.

Related blogs

Armies against armies

Agro-Insight has written many blog stories on Local innovation and Pest management

Related videos

Scouting for fall armyworms

Killing fall armyworms naturally

Acknowledgement

The videos on fall armyworm are developed in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

Armies against armies July 15th, 2018 by

Some battles are harder to win than others. Last year farmers in much of Africa were faced for the first time with a new species of armyworm and saw their maize crops attacked. The fall armyworm had come from Latin America and was unknown to farmers, extension workers and governments. Responses across the continent differed, but quite some governments attempted to stem the tide of fall armyworms with pesticides. In Zambia, the government used the army, deploying soldiers across the country to spray farmers’ maize fields.

But the pest is not easily killed by pesticides and the worry is that this approach will cause more harm than good. The fall armyworm begins life as a caterpillar before becomimg an adult moth. The moth is nocturnal and lives for about two weeks during which it lays its eggs in batches of 100-300 tiny eggs. The small, whitish fluffy spots are mostly found on the underside of maize leaves. When the tiny caterpillars emerge en masse they look like an army, ready to invade the plant. Some armyworms drop off the leaves, hanging on a fragile thread and then carried by the wind to attack neighbouring maize plants. After feeding just a few days on the surface of leaves, the young armyworms hide inside the leaf whorl of young plants. On mature maize plants they tunnel through the husk and chew on soft maize kernels. Either way, the armyworms are protected from pesticide sprays.

Last week, Marcella and I were in Embu County in Kenya, making two farmer training videos on how best to manage the fall armyworm. I was particularly curious to find out if farmers had come up with their own solutions. After all, they have not had a lot of time to experiment. But necessity is the mother of invention, and when livelihoods are at stake farmers can be quick and inventive in finding effective ways to manage damaging pests.

John Fundi, a young farmer in Ugweri village, told us how he merged two independent observations to come up with a life-saving solution. “When my wife cooks in the kitchen, I have seen that when some of the cooking fat is spoiled on the floor, these tiny black ants come and feed on it. And when we dry our maize after harvest, I have seen that some of these ants also carry caterpillars from the maize ears. So I thought that perhaps these ants can help me control the fall armyworm.”

John with his wife and young son now go to their field when the maize is just a few weeks old. With their fingers they smear a little bit of solid cooking fat to the base of the maize stalk. With a small pack of cooking fat, they can easily cover half a hectare. “In no time, the tiny black ants will come to feed on the oil and while they are on the maize they also find any armyworms. Even when we cannot see the tiny caterpillars inside the whorl, the ants will find and kill them,” John says with a satisfying smile. When the maize plant starts to develop maize ears, John and his wife repeat the treatment, smearing the fat at the base of the stalk and one metre high on the stalk.

Neighbours who had sprayed pesticides in vain found it difficult to believe that John’s innovation would work. But as they have seen the results of using cooking fat with their own eyes all have started to copy John’s method. With the videos we hope that examples of innovative farmers like John will inspire farmers and governments across Africa to try out low-cost and simple methods.

In agriculture, armies of ants can do the job of national armies for free – and without the costly and damaging effects of spraying pesticides.

Related blogs

Agro-Insight has written many blog stories on Local innovation and Pest management

Related videos

Scouting for fall armyworms

Killing fall armyworms naturally

Other videos we made that relate to ants used in pest control are:

Weaver ants against fruit flies

Promoting weaver ants in your orchard

Acknowledgement

The videos on fall armyworm are developed in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) with funding from the McKnight Foundation’s Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP).

A burning hunger June 24th, 2018 by

Towards the end of the dry season many families across the African savannas have exhausted their reserves of stored cereal crops. Vegetables are hard to come by in local markets. Bush meat is one way for rural people to supplement their meagre diet with protein during the well-named lean or hunger season. This is why development organisations have struggled for decades to curb the destructive practice of setting the bush on fire to hunt small wildlife.

One option to ensure some food and income during the lean season is to grow cashew and mango trees. But with increased labour costs and insecure markets, it is difficult for farmers to properly maintain their planted trees. Slashing the weedy and bushy undergrowth is often only done late during the flowering and fruiting season, by which time bush fires set by others may have spread into and destroyed entire plantations in no time.

Increasingly, development organisations are starting to realise that integrated farming systems and local value addition to food are the way forward. In a recently published video on the Access Agriculture video platform, the Beninese NGO DEDRAS neatly shows how growing groundnuts and soya beans in cashew plantations helps farmers produce a nutritious crop during the lean season, and thus discourage damaging bush fires. DEDRAS also made a training video with rural women on how to make cheese from soya, a good example of adding value.

In addition to tree crops, such as mango and cashew, farmer also manage other local species, such as nére (Parkia biglobosa) and the karité or shea nut tree (Vitellaria paradoxa). These wild indigenous trees, distincive features of the savanna, also provide fruits and nuts during the lean season. Neré and the shea nut tree have grown here for thousands of years and are relatively fire-resistant. Traditionally, néré seeds are dried, cooked and fermented to make “soumbala”, a local equivalent to bouillon cubes that brings taste to many dishes. But with an increased need for fuel wood, more néré are being cut down. While the fuel wood crisis has not received the attention it deserves, nutritionists have taken notice and have come up with a way to use fermented soya beans as a replacement for the local soumbala. This practice has been captured by the NGO AMEDD in Mali in a nice farmer training video, also hosted on the Access Agriculture video platform.

In an earlier blog, Jeff wrote about his experience with grasscutters in West Africa. Declining populations in the wild, along with the strong and continuing demand for meat, have inspired rural entrepreneurs to develop alternative sources. Across Africa one can witness how mainly women and youth have set up grasscutter, poultry, rabbit and other small livestock businesses.

The many training videos on small livestock, intercropping with legumes, and rural food processing offer viable alternatives to the hunting for bush meat. These enterprises may eventually prove more effective in reducing bush fires than lecturing rural people about their adverse environmental impacts. Positive solutions are always better at promoting behaviour change.

Related blog

Coming in from the wild

Waiting for rats

Related farmer training videos

Growing annual crops in cashew orchards

Preparing cashew apple juice

Making a condiment from soya beans

Making soya cheese

Parkland agroforestry

Harvesting and storing shea nuts

Making better shea butter

Promoting weaver ants in your orchard

Feeding grasscutters

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