Life as we once knew it is gone. The emergence and spread of COVID-19 has changed our everyday lives and disrupted food production and supply chains. The latest report by the Global Network Against Food Crises predicts that 265 million people in low- and middle-income countries will suffer from acute food insecurity by the end of 2020 unless rapid measures are taken. For African countries, this puts additional pressure on smallholders, who are responsible for 80 percent of the food produced, and especially on women, who provide the bulk of the agricultural labour force.
Dorothy Chalwe and Josephine Kombe, both of Kwamuyebe Village in Kawambwa District, Zambia, are among 42 women smallholders in the country participating in a research project, Developing Smallholder Strategies for Fall Armyworm Management in Southern Africa: Examining the Effectiveness of Ecological Control Options. The five-year project is funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation and implemented by World Agroforestry (ICRAF) in partnership with the Zambia Agricultural Research Institute and Malawi’s Department of Agricultural Research Services.
A first glance at Chalwe’s home compound shows evidence that farming is a source of livelihood for this family. Their mud and grass-thatched house is surrounded by garden beds divided into small plots for tomato, onion, rape and cabbage, surrounded by large fields of maize, cassava, millet and groundnuts. For animal protein, the sound of a rooster and chickens is echoed every few seconds, a sure sight that this household takes food matters seriously.
‘We enjoy growing our food because the nearest town is half a day’s walk, which is quite tiresome, so we prefer having everything homegrown to cut on the need to travel,’ said Chalwe.
Kawambwa is an area that receives approximately 1100 mm of rain annually, supporting a variety of crops, aquaculture and livestock. Many farmers in the area grow mostly maize for home consumption and sale. However, since the arrival of the fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) that firm ground has been shaken.
‘It was during the 2015/2016 farming season when we experienced the first attack of fall armyworm, which destroyed three-quarters of our maize field,’ explained Chalwe. ‘During that period, we watched as the pest attacked our maize because we could not afford pesticides to manage them as they were too expensive. Thereafter, at harvest time, what we harvested fed us for three months and then we started buying maize meal which was costly.’
Chalwe added that they survived the remaining part of the year feeding on cassava and millet meal. The insect pest ruined about a year’s supply of grain for her family.
Maize is the single most important crop in Zambia. It is a widely grown crop by smallholders and is the national staple food, providing about 60 percent of the country’s caloric requirements. Other crops include cassava, millet, sorghum, soybean, wheat and tobacco. Ironically, maize is the most targeted by fall armyworm, posing a great threat to food security for millions of households. Evidence indicates that the crop is mostly at risk before the tasselling stage, the development of the male flowers
Women farmers like Dorothy have felt the pinch of the destructive pest from the Americas within the few years of its invasion into Africa.
According to Chipo Chisonga, a project officer with ICRAF in Zambia, the most common damage occurs at the late pre-tassel stage of the maize plant. In a worst-case scenario, an entire maize field can see 100 percent infestation, potentially destroying the entire crop.
‘The percentage of infestation varies and has several contributing factors, such as seed variety and agronomic practices,’ said Chisonga. ‘The most vulnerable stage is before the maize tassels develop, as fall armyworm hides in the leaf whorl and destroys the crop from inside out.’
A 2018 Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute report framed food security in a scale ranging from low through central to worst/high in crop loss if measures were not taken to control the invasive pest. This analysis showed that under any scenario modelled, the fall armyworm attack was likely to affect the food security of a country.
Apart from ensuring that there is at least a meal on the table, a good harvest allows women like Josephine Kombe, a single mother of five children, to run a business to support her family. Kombe lost her husband about five years ago and has been relying on farming to feed her children and pay for the costs of sending her children to school.
She has been using maize and cassava to brew a traditional beer to raise income. Kombe said the project was helping her produce enough food to feed her family as well as ingredients for her product.
‘The project is empowering us to continue with farming during these challenging times as we strive to earn a living,’ she said. ‘The pest was difficult to manage when we first saw it and tried spraying with chemicals but we achieved very little results. Hopefully, the approaches under testing will be effective and we can expect a good harvest this year.’
Working closely with farmers, some of the approaches being tested include intercropping maize with selected local legumes, such as velvet bean (Mucuna pruriens), ‘lablab’ (Lablab purpureus) and cow pea (Vigna unguiculate). Minimum tillage, mulching, composting and crop rotation and agroforestry are other potential agro-ecological measures under investigation.
Women play a significant role in food production in both countries. It is imperative that they are well equipped to tackle the pest. Agroecological approaches offer a solution for women farmers and during the COVID-19 pandemic, where the demand for food of course continues, they can look to the future with hope. Additionally, these nature-based approaches offer other benefits, such as improved soil fertility and crop health, and also favourable habitats for natural enemies of the pest to thrive, thereby, reducing its population.