In Summary
  • Swarms can travel up to 130km (80 miles) per day and a kilometre-wide swarm can contain up to 80 million locusts, according to Food and Agriculture Organisation.
  • Entomological Society of Kenya Chairman Muo Kasina says targeting the insects' breeding sites is one of the best methods of controlling them.

The ongoing march by armies of desert locusts — a virulent species of the grasshopper family that eats every green matter on sight — threatens the country’s food security and, by extension, the economy, experts warn.

Experts say the pests have the potential of destroying swathes of maize, coffee, vegetable and tea plantations, and can knock down seasons of food, prompting acute hunger.

Any disruption in the agriculture sector, a major driver of Kenya’s economy that contributes up to Sh2.9 trillion, according to last year’s estimates, can substantially slow down growth.

On Monday, the pests had reached Kirinyaga and Laikipia, two counties with substantial agriculture, raising fears that other neighbouring regions could be affected.

Laikipia is home to large-scale farms where some of Kenya’s best agricultural efforts have been demonstrated.

Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri, speaking before he was fired Tuesday, admitted that pest invasion and the potential to spread rapidly to other counties posed an unprecedented threat to food security.

Locusts were first spotted in Mandera on December 28 before they spread to neighbouring Wajir, Garissa and Marsabit. They have now entered Isiolo, Meru and Samburu.

POTENTIAL HAVOC

Control measures involve the use of planes and vehicles to carry out survey and control operations and use of pesticides with as little negative impact on the environment as possible.

Other desperate measures have seen police shoot in the air and spray tear gas at the pests, while residents clap their hands, whistle and bang cans to try and chase away the thick clouds of locusts, but the insects continue to march.

A Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) forecast in the Horn of Africa paints the situation as extremely serious, the worst in 25 years, though it says breeding is expected to be low in Kenya.

Agriculture Principal Secretary Hamadi Boga said the government was yet to quantify the loss as the focus was on control, but past attacks have caused losses of up to 70 per cent.

While the pests have largely destroyed pasture in rangeland counties and the relatively small patches of farms in the arid and semi-arid counties, the voracious locusts have a strong preference for graminaceous plants, such as millet and maize, and their advance into the country’s food basket areas would be devastating.

Swarms can travel up to 130km (80 miles) per day and a kilometre-wide swarm can contain up to 80 million locusts, according to FAO.

Experts estimate that the insects are capable of destroying at least 200 tonnes of vegetation per day.

CONTROL MEASURES

Daily Nation teams that visited the affected counties witnessed a deteriorating situation despite the government’s efforts to combat the locusts through ground and aerial control.

The attack appears to be more serious than FAO’s earlier projection and has been made worse by heavy rainfall and floods.

The FAO, in its locust situation update on January 6, had warned of “a low risk of breeding in Kenya”.

The voracious insect now threatens rice, wheat, miraa, coffee, tea and maize, affecting the livelihoods of millions of people.

On Monday, the Kirinyaga County government dispatched agricultural officers to Riandira village following reports that locusts had been spotted there.

On Sunday, panic gripped residents after the insects landed in the village.

Residents are worried that the voracious feeders may spread to the whole region and wreak havoc on the maize, rice, tea and coffee farms. The insects have already invaded farms belonging to two farmers at Riandira.

“Locusts are now in my farm. They are feeding on my trees and they are spreading fast,” said Mr Isaac Ndung’u.

LIVELIHOODS IN JEOPARDY

In Isiolo, herders are counting losses after 150 square kilometres of pasture were completely destroyed by the locusts that invaded the county last Wednesday.

In Isiolo, 3,150 square kilometres of land in Garbatulla and Merti sub-counties had been covered by the destructive pests, according to county officials.

Mr Salad Jillo, the county chief officer in charge of agriculture, said the pests caused total destruction of pasture in four areas where they have settled.

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