NATIONAL DISASTER

It's raining locusts: Swarms ravage crops, herald famine

Desert locusts have spread to 17 counties, with fresh swarms flying into the country as the government struggles to contain them

In Summary

• Farmers and leaders from five counties paint a picture of despair as invasion persists

• With delays in aerial spraying, some farmers pay workers Sh300 daily to chase away the locusts

An agricultural extension officer sprays locusts in Mandera East
An agricultural extension officer sprays locusts in Mandera East
Image: STEPHEN ASTARIKO

Whereas in other years lingering short rains instead of droughts would be seen as a blessing, this year the unusual weather has come with an unwelcome guest: desert locusts.

Swarming in from the Middle East in groups as large as 80 million locusts, they first hit Mandera before flying their way to different corners of the country.   

Farmers and leaders from Kitui, Mandera, Garissa, Meru and Tharaka Nithi counties lamented to the Star how the voracious pests leave a trail of destruction. Abdi Mohamed from Garissa summed it up best.

 
 

The locusts don’t want to see anything green. What is shocking is how fast they are in destroying the crops,” he said.

 

Farmers in 17 counties so far can do little more than physically chase the locusts away, shouting their heads off as they pray the government intervenes with aerial spraying. Some are parting with Sh300 daily to pay workers to chase away locusts in their farms.

The Food Agricultural Organisation estimates that 55,000 acres have been infested in Kenya. 

To make matters worse, the government says it will take at least six months to control the locusts. This does not bode well for food supply and prices, despite some agencies downplaying the impact on the country's agricultural economy.

As the crisis unfolds, Deputy Senate Speaker Kithure Kindiki appealed to President Uhuru Kenyatta, Deputy President William Ruto and Opposition leader Raila Odinga to shun all political activities and focus on the fight against the locust menace.

There should be no politics at the expense of locusts. We demand that President Uhuru and Raila stop all the BBI meetings and concentrate all efforts on the fight against locusts,” he said.

 

“Whether you are elected, nominated, administrator or clergy, assist the way you can to help us deal with these insects.” 

 
 

Kindiki demanded the national government declare the locust invasion a national disaster. He said he had witnessed an elderly man crying helplessly after all his crops and pasture were feasted on.

Esther Paul, a farmer from Ngungi Mumoni subcounty, Kitui county, at her farm after her three-acre crop was destroyed by locusts
Esther Paul, a farmer from Ngungi Mumoni subcounty, Kitui county, at her farm after her three-acre crop was destroyed by locusts
Image: LINAH MUSANGI

DESPERATE MEASURES

In Tharaka Nithi county, residents have resorted to beating iron sheets, whistling and screaming, to scare and chase away the locusts.

HUGE LOSSES

In Kitui county, farmers are demanding compensation after several swarms of locusts invaded the massive county through Mwingi North subcounty, which borders Tana River and Garissa counties, from January 21.

 
 
 
 

Agriculture executive Emanuel Kisangau said the insects first invaded Kitui through Kora Game Reserve into Tseikuru ward, spread to Kyuso ward and Ngomeni ward of Mwingi North.

Josphat Musyoka, a farmer in Ngengi, Kyuso, said when the insects invaded their farms, they spent sleepless nights at the farm, trying to keep them at bay.

Musyoka, who termed the exercise tiresome, pleaded with the government to step in and help avert the menace. He said farmers are only using manual methods to do away with the stubborn desert insects.

Esther Kyallo, a farmer from Nguni in Mwingi Central, was expecting a bumper harvest of green grams. But now she has nothing to harvest since three-quarters of her crops have been eaten by locusts.

I expected more than 10 bags of green grams to send my children to school after selling, but that now remains a dream,” she said.

Joseph Makau, a farmer from Mandara, Kyuso subcounty, said he expected 12 sacks of sorghum but from the look of things, he will not harvest more than one bag of 90kg. His three and a half acres of crops have been destroyed.

I am very worried and disturbed as I depend on selling the sorghum so I can pay my children’s school fees, among other needs. But the locusts have destroyed the crops, so I expect a poor harvest,” Makau said.

Mwingi North MP Paul Nzengu said it is carelessness on the Agriculture ministry’s side as there were early warnings of invasion from the regional African Desert Locusts Control Organisation.

“The government should have procured enough and more effective stocks of the chemical used to spray the insects. Excuses of the chemical running out at the expense of mwananchi is utter irresponsibility and it is tantamount to a crime by the government against its citizens,” he said.

Kitui Deputy Governor Wathe Nzau said the pesticide is out of stock.

As the county government, we are coordinating and issuing coordinate points and giving ground advice,” he said.

Youths from Ngengi area of Mumoni in Kitui County chase locusts from trees.
Youths from Ngengi area of Mumoni in Kitui County chase locusts from trees.
Image: LINAH MUSANGI

FOOD, PASTURE SHORTAGE

Mandera county was the first county be invaded by the destructive pest on December 28 last year. The locusts were said to have crossed from Somalia to El Wak in Mandera county.

Farmers practising irrigation say the locusts invaded and completely destroyed vegetables and onion farms. They camped in the area for two weeks.

Mohammed Noor is one of the affected farmers. He regretted that despite the county government, led by Governor Ali Roba, appealing for urgent intervention from the national government, little help came their way.

The choppers that we were told will come to spray the locusts only came two weeks later. And even when they came, they were not as effective because the pesticide they used was of very low standard,” Noor said.

Although the county government has been spraying, Noor said that was not enough since it lacked the technical know-how and sophisticated implements.

He said the only sure way of containing the insects is through aerial spraying, which is easier and covers a wider area than hand spray.

Abdullahi Mohammed, a pastoralist, said they are now staring at a possible famine since the pasture they got from the last year’s rainfall is being consumed by the locusts.

He is worried that if this continues, there will be a big food and pasture shortage in the county.

Mandera county director of agriculture Diisow Noor admits that as a county, they do not have the capacity to fight the locusts. He appealed to the President to declare the invasion a national disaster.

He said lack of enough personnel and equipment remains a big challenge to contain these locusts, which breed at a very high rate.

In Garissa county, the locusts were spotted in January, when they invaded farms in Sankuri ward in Balambala.

Abdi Mohamed, the chairman of Wathajir farm, said three swarms landed in the area and in a span of three hours, they had totally destroyed their crops.

In our farms, we have bananas, pawpaws, mangoes, vegetables and onions. The locusts don’t want to see anything green. What is shocking is how fast they are in destroying the crops. Going forward, we are staring at a very bleak future since the locusts have destroyed everything,” he said.

Wajir Governor Mohamed Abdi said as it stands, the national and county governments remain ill-equipped, ill-prepared and poorly resourced to undertake surveillance and control to contain the locust invasion in the area.

Our farmers continue to report huge losses as the swarms of locusts wipe out crops, trees and threaten pasture in a county that is dependent largely on pastoralism,” Abdi said.

We humbly appeal to President Uhuru Kenyatta to consider the locust invasion a national disaster that requires urgent mobilisation of resources and intervention. We continue to call for faster response to this disaster and particularly recommend heavy capacity aerial spraying intervention,” he said.

Kenya Livestock Marketing Council chairman Dubat Amey accused the national government of being slow and uncoordinated in its response to the locust menace.

“We continue to urge the Agriculture ministry to wake up from its slumber and desist from making demeaning and irresponsible statements about a life-threatening disaster posed by the invasion of the locusts,” he said.

"They should stop playing public relations, move on the ground and eradicate these things once and for all."

LASTING EFFECTS

In Meru county, farmers fear the aftermath of the invasion. Residents of Gacibine, Ngatune and Thangatha wards in Tigania Central urged the Agriculture ministry to tell residents the most effective chemical to kill the insects.

Patrick Kiriinya, a farmer, said the locusts are breeding at alarming rates and they may lead to a permanent environmental change in the affected areas and reduce soil fertility.

“We suffered last year's drought. It could be worse if they are not controlled. We are spending long nights chasing them from our farms,” he said.

He said the locusts are currently at Ntorone near Shauri. They have destroyed pasture and crops at Ngatune, Thangatha and Gacibine. The pests have also been sighted in Ndumuru and along the Isiolo border in Igembe North constituency.

Igembe South MP John Paul Mwirigi had earlier said emergency funds could have been released on time after FAO sent an alert on the invasion of the desert locust.

"The Agriculture ministry should be less cautious and deploy aircraft in the invaded areas. They should put up measures to stop the invasion of other regions in the county,” Mwirigi said.

In Tharaka Nithi county, residents have resorted to beating iron sheets, whistling and screaming, to scare and chase away the desert insects.

Edited by T Jalio