BLANTYRE - In Malawi, President Peter Mutharika has declared 20 of the country’s 28 districts disaster areas following an invasion by fall armyworms. The pests have destroyed the crops of nearly 140,000 farming families since the start of November.
The government is seeking international help to contain the outbreak, which President Mutharika says is a major threat to Malawi's food security.
“What comes to mind very quickly, are the chemicals that are required to help farmers protect their fields from the worms. For you to procure the chemicals, you need the finances,” said Mgeme Kalirani, the spokesperson for President Mutharika.
In a statement released Sunday, Kalirani said the government has just procured about 56,000 liters of pesticide, just one-seventh of the amount needed.
He said despite the shortage, the government is already distributing pesticides such as Cypermethrin to farmers in some affected areas.
“But looking at the extent of the damage that has been caused, government has thought it wise to invite other stakeholders to come and help, because the thinking is that by itself it cannot be able to contain the situation,” said Kalirani.
The fall armyworms are believed to have been transported from their usual habitat in the U.S. state of Florida or the Caribbean.
A USAID expert said recently that the caterpillars have spread to 21 African countries and threaten the continent's main food staple, maize.
Fall armyworms also hit Zimbabwe and Zambia early this year. In Zambia, the worms destroyed over 124,000 hectares of maize in seven of the country's eight corn-growing provinces.
This forced the government to start using military planes to spray pesticides to highly affected areas; however, agriculture experts warn the worms have become resistant to Cypermethrin.
Researchers in Malawi are experimenting with other pesticides.
Scientists at the Bvumbwe Agriculture Research Station say that so far, about five pesticides have been found to be effective. These include Belt 480 SC, Chlorpyrifos 480 SC and Steward.
“They are eliminating. Like in the plots where we have applied these pesticides, we have found that there are no fall army worms. So, it means they are working against this pest,” said Donald Kachigamba, an entomologist working on the project.
In the meantime, Ministry of Agriculture officials are asking farmers to inform them if they notice strange worms in their crop fields.