A JOURNALIST'S EXPERIENCE

Massive losses: On the ground with desert locust fighters

It was disheartening seeing desperate farmers trying to chase the swarms away by clapping, beating drums and shouting.

In Summary
  • It is easy to report on the desert invasion from Nairobi because the Ministry of Agriculture and other organisations provide information.
  • But it is a different ball game when you visit the counties affected and experience firsthand the damage locusts have caused.
Vincent Mwaniki of Gituloin Igembe Central scares away locusts that invaded his miraa farm
Vincent Mwaniki of Gituloin Igembe Central scares away locusts that invaded his miraa farm
Image: JACK OWUOR
Charles Murira of Tigania East tries to scare away the desert locusts that invaded his home
Charles Murira of Tigania East tries to scare away the desert locusts that invaded his home
Image: JACK OWUOR

I started reporting about locust invasion of the country in December 2019 when the government announced emergence of the migratory pests in northern Kenya. 

Hardly a week goes without me writing an article on the locusts and the efforts of the government and other stakeholders to fight them.  

It is easy to report on the desert invasion from Nairobi because the Ministry of Agriculture and other organisations provide information they receive from counties grappling with the invasion.

Information is also provided by different sources like the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. You process the information on the confidence that whatever the source is giving you is the true picture on the ground.

But it is a different ball game when you visit the counties affected and experience firsthand the damage locusts have caused, or when a huge swarm flies over your head while in an area where the pests have invaded.

A team of 17 journalists departed Nairobi on Monday, February 15 by road to Isiolo, the the epicentre of the current second wave of locust invasion. 

Our team was accompanied by Government Spokesperson Cyrus Oguna, local administration and senior officials from FAO.  We left Nairobi at 11am sharp and had a few stopovers.  The journey to Isiolo took about five hours. 

Our first sighting of the locusts was, however, in Narumoru, way before we reached Isiolo.  As the swarm flew past Narumoru town, residents could only watch helplessly, hoping and praying that the vicious pests would not land on their farms. 

Upon arrival in Isiolo, we were briefed on the exact time to assemble early the next morning. Early on Tuesday, we were off to the field to assess the impact of the locust attack in Isiolo county.

The damage is immense.  At Lewa Conservancy a centre has been set up with the elocust 3m technology to collect data on invasion. 

Our day on Wednesday started at 5.30am because we were informed this is the best time to look out for the locusts when they are still in their roosting areas where the swarms rest for the night.

We headed to Meru where farmers were counting huge losses as their main cash crop miraa is under heavy attack.

In Tigania East, huge swarms of locusts were devouring the vegetation despite the residents' attempts to use traditional methods to scare them away. 

But the control team comprising of Kenya Defence Forces and the National Youth Service was on the ground spraying the swarms that were busy chewing anything green and leafy they came across. 

While using vehicle mounted sprayers, the NYS and KDF officials were all covered up in protective gear and we were advised not to go near for our safety. 

In Mukwani village in Tigania East, it was disheartening seeing desperate farmers trying to chase the swarms away by clapping, beating drums and making noise to no avail.  The pests would fly for a few metres and settle on other vegetation.

Farmers were concerned that the pests had ruined their economic lives. They sighed with relief when KDF and NYS arrived. 

Within no time the sky was almost dark as huge swarms started moving away owing to the effects of the pesticides.

Never seen such a thing before, having only written stories about the locust invasion from Nairobi.

The pests have eaten farmers' maize, beans, ground nuts and miraa. Miraa is the main cash crop in the area that provides substantial proceeds which they use to educate their children and other financial needs. 

Lucy Makena, a resident of Mukwani village, said it had been three days since the locusts invaded the area.

“Spraying has started but we have been told not to harvest anything until three days after spraying has been done. While we appreciate the effort the government is doing to control the locusts, we are making losses as we cannot harvest miraa,” she said.

She said she makes about Sh150, 000 a year from the sale of miraa and she is afraid that this year she will not be able to make much.

Makena harvests about five kilos of miraa daily but for the past few days she had not harvested anything. She sells a kilo of miraa at Sh350.

Francis Karanja of NYS sprays pesticide to kill locusts in Gitulo, Igembe Central, Meru county
Francis Karanja of NYS sprays pesticide to kill locusts in Gitulo, Igembe Central, Meru county
Image: JACK OWUOR
Kenya Defence forces personnel spray farms in Mokuani, Tigania East
Kenya Defence forces personnel spray farms in Mokuani, Tigania East
Image: JACK OWUOR

The first desert locust invasion in Kenya was reported in December 28, 2019 after swarms were sighted in Mandera county.

This was the worst desert locust outbreak to hit Kenya in 70 years. At first, neither the government nor experts knew what to do, even as the invasion continued to spread to other counties.

Pastoralists and farmers affected went into panic mode and tried all manner of methods to drive the swarms away.

Hamisi Williams, FAO deputy country representative, said by February 2020 not much was happening in controlling the locust invasion.

“By this time last year, we had not made any move in terms of controlling the desert locust invasion. We were not prepared and we did not have much in place. If you look at what happened then and what is happening now in the third week of the second invasion, we have made many positive strides,” Williams said.

FAO has been at the forefront in supporting the government in fighting the locust invasion.

FAO said numerous small immature swarms persist in northern and central counties.

Agriculture CS Peter Munya said this year the desert locusts have been reported in Marsabit, Wajir, Garissa, Tana River, Lamu, Kilifi, Taita Taveta, Mandera, Machakos, Kitui, Isiolo, Samburu, Laikipia, Meru and Tharaka Nithi.

But by last week, the number of the affected counties had reduced to 11 including Wajir, Marsabit, Samburu, Baringo, Meru, Tharaka-Nithi, Embu, Kitui, Machakos, Makueni and Nyandarua.

Munya said the government has so far established eight control bases strategically in Isiolo, Marsabit, Masinga, Garissa, Turkana (Lodwar), Mandera, Lamu (Witu) and Taita Taveta to coordinate desert locust management operations.

He said the government has also deployed nine surveillance and spray aircrafts and three are on standby. This is in addition to 21 vehicles mounted with sprayers for ground control operations in the various bases.

Munya said about 300 swarms have been sighted in the second wave and that 156 swarms have so far been contained.

"The control team has contained the situation by around 80 per cent and only 20 per cent is still being controlled," he said.

He said the government has 320, 000 litres of chemicals to fight the desert locusts upsurge, and so far, 1, 600 scouts have been trained in ground surveillance and control. 

FAO said there was a strange phenomenon this year where the second invasion came through very unusual areas of the Coast region.

"We got swarms from southern parts of Somalia into Kenya as early as November 7, 2020 where swarms crossed to Lamu. They then moved to Kilifi and parts of Tana River and Taita Taveta counties. These were mature swarms and a few of them managed to lay eggs in the coastal areas and they were hoppers that emerged. We dealt with them so we don't have any active swarms in those areas," Williams said.

"But we have some hoppers that were left in critical areas of Kipini and Tsavo National Park. With Tsavo being a park, there are protocols that must be followed before you do control, due to matters of environment, health and safety of the wildlife that have to be followed. So we got our officers to train Kenya Wildlife Service to be able to support the control of locusts in the park," he said.  

Edited by Henry Makori