28 April 2020 – A new wave of billions of locusts is set to devour crops across the East and Horn of Africa region, setting off concerns about regional food security and livelihoods of millions of farmers. In this interview published by the African Development Bank (AfDB), the institution’s Chief Financial Economist Edson Mpyisi provides details and different perspectives about the locust crisis and the Bank’s work to help affected African nations to cope.
Locust swarms come around every 10 to 15 years, they’re nothing new. What makes this season’s swarms in East Africa and the Horn different?
Locusts come around every few years in different parts of the world. However, Kenya hasn’t experienced a locust swarm invasion of this magnitude in 70 years, Ethiopia in the past 25 years. This is a locust crisis that has affected roughly 10 countries in the East and Horn of Africa. The swarms started in the Arabian Peninsula, moved into Somalia and then Ethiopia and Kenya – those three countries are the epicenter. Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Uganda and Tanzania have also been impacted.
Locusts move fast, they take flight and the wind can carry them up to 150 kilometers per day – and the winds keep on shifting. One country might be affected by locusts today and a neighboring country might not have any, but after three or four days, the locusts could be brought over by the winds. That is why a regional response is needed.
We are very concerned that the new swarms – “the second wave” – will cause considerably more damage that the swarms seen last November and December in Africa, which arrived after most crops had matured or been harvested. A new generation of locusts born from the eggs of the last swarms will mature and start feeding on vegetation and crops in May and June, which is the main growing season in the region. That’s when maize, beans, sorghum and other crops will sprout succulent, green and leafy plant material – ideal feeding for locusts. If locust swarms aren’t controlled by that time, up to 100% of the farmers’ crops could be consumed, leaving some communities with nothing to harvest.
How much damage can one locust do, and what can be done to stop them?
One locust can consume its own weight in one day, which to put it in perspective is equivalent to an average person consuming 70kg of food in one day! It has been estimated that 100 to 150 million locusts can settle on one square kilometer of land – and in one day, consume the same amount of food as 35,000 people. They are highly efficient eating machines! When they settle in an area and leave after a few days, they’ve eaten everything green and the place is just bare.
The Bank has responded to a regional appeal, mostly through the United Nations system, to mitigate the locust invasion. We have contributed $1.5 million in grants to that regional appeal, in response to a request from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development [IGAD], mostly for locust surveillance and control. IGAD covers most of the countries that have been affected. At the national level, some affected countries are considering re-allocating resources from other ongoing African Development Bank projects toward locust response. For example, Kenya has requested to re-allocate about $5 million in resources committed to other Bank-funded projects to address the locust emergency.
In the longer term, we are developing regional projects under climate smart agriculture that would include surveillance and monitoring of locusts, as well as strengthening preparedness for future swarms.
Some are calling this locust invasion “Locust-19” – in reference to COVID-19. In what ways are the coronavirus pandemic and locust swarms not only connected, but also a double threat to African economies and food security?
The locust invasions come at a very unfortunate time. Compared to other parts of the world, the locust invasion and COVID-19 crisis are a double disaster for the entire East and Horn of Africa. To control the locusts, you have to go out and conduct surveillance to find out where they are, how many there are, where they may move to next. You also need to be able to spray pesticides either from the ground or aerially. Under COVID-19 lockdown, this is difficult because people can’t move as much as before. When we talk about aerial spraying, you need aircraft – helicopters for surveillance and planes for spraying. Restrictions on shipments and logistics worldwide also affect aircraft. For example, Somalia was supposed to receive surveillance helicopters from South Africa, which need to stop and refuel in different countries on the way. They can’t do that due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. This causes backlogs in getting the helicopters to come and do the work.
Pesticides are also usually sourced from different parts of the world including China, Europe, and South America. COVID-19 lockdowns are causing disruptions in the supply chains and logistics for chemicals and that is also slowing interventions.
All these factors converge to make COVID-19 and locusts a double disaster in the East and Horn of Africa.
Is spraying insecticides enough to stop the locusts?
Spraying is one of the most effective ways of controlling locusts but it entails much more than simply spraying. One needs to conduct surveillance ahead of time to know the locations, numbers, terrain, livelihoods systems, and methodologies for data collection. You also have to use the right pesticides and bio-pesticides and you have to know how to use them. When we work with the Food and Agricultural Organization, there are standard operating procedures. If you don’t use the pesticides correctly, you could affect other ecosystems – including fish, birds, and water. We have to protect not only the environment, but also the people doing the spraying and those in the affected communities. The people who are using these chemicals need to undergo training on how to use them safely.
In addition to controlling the locusts, it is very important that we also consider what happens after the locusts are eradicated. Most of the affected communities won’t have any seeds and inputs for planting, as the locusts will have destroyed their means to farm. We have to find ways to safeguard livelihoods and also provide inputs and tools for early recovery of those communities. Aside from locust-control measures, we have programs to provide seed, fertilizers and other packages to crop and livestock farmers.