A pest that is barely the size of a paperclip poses a major threat to farmers in Malawi.
In 2013, droves of armyworms marched across the fields of this landlocked country in southern Africa, feasting on essential crops and leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. According to the Government of Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development (MoAIWD), the outbreak affected more than 10,900 hectares of land and 23,500 farming families.
In a country where drought and hunger are persistent issues, this infestation dealt a particularly heavy blow to farmers whose livelihoods and food security depend on healthy crops. Of the districts affected, Balaka and Machinga were among the most heavily impacted by the crisis.
“[The government] intervened with the provision of chemicals to apply in our maize fields, but the chemicals were not enough to overcome the worms,” said Mise Yusufu, a farmer from Mbweso Village in Machinga District.
Project Concern International (PCI) was already working to address food security issues in Malawi when the need arose for an emergency response to the armyworm infestation. Under Project ARC, an initiative funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA), PCI distributed bundles of sweet potato vines and cowpeas to help farmers in Balaka District recover and replant.
To build on these relief efforts and better prepare communities to manage future armyworm outbreaks, PCI partnered with Sun Mountain International (SMTN) under Project ARC II. Over the course of two years (2014-2016), with continued support from USAID/OFDA, the organizations helped government officials, farmers, agro-dealers and other stakeholders strengthen their ability to forecast, prevent and control armyworm infestations.
From the outset, the project aimed to build on the region’s existing pest control procedures and provide information on natural alternatives that have proven beneficial in other countries. To do this, PCI and SMTN developed a guide, or “Knowledge Sharing Manual for the Management of African Armyworm (S. exempta) for Balaka and Machinga Districts of Malawi.” The manual can be used by government extension workers, program coordinators and other key agents who train farmers and make strategic decisions on how to address armyworms.
In the training materials, PCI and MoAIWD promote using pheromone traps and rain gauges to help with community-based forecasting and surveillance of potential armyworm outbreaks. Pheromone traps lure insects with species-specific chemicals, while rain gauges measure how much rain has fallen over a given period of time. Together, both tools offer a simple and effective way to carry out pest surveillance. According to the Government of Malawi, if at least 30 male armyworm moths are caught and 5 millimeters of rainfall occur in one week, an armyworm outbreak will likely take place.
In collaboration with MoAIWD, PCI trained a total of 659 people—including community-based armyworm forecasters, government extension workers, and ARC II beneficiaries—in pest control and crop protection practices. The partners also distributed 26 pheromone traps and 31 rain gauges to 26 communities across Balaka and Machinga Districts.
If utilized with proper techniques, each pheromone trap can protect a land size of 700 hectares, out of which 578 hectares are estimated to have vegetative plant coverage. This means more than 15,028 hectares of crops have the potential to be protected against armyworm and other pests.
“We have created awareness and farmers are able to know if their field is infested,” said Jamali Bwanali, a community-based armyworm forecaster in Balaka District who has seen the benefits of the early warning system in action this year. “When they note anything, they alert us and they know both scientific and indigenous ways to eradicate the pests. … It has helped greatly to have increased harvest.”
PCI is now working to adapt these strategies to address fall armyworm, a different strain of the pest creating equally devastating effects across southern Africa.
“As an organization working to support food security and resilience throughout the region with experience in similar outbreaks, PCI is in a position to make important contributions to the current emergency by working directly with communities, government partners at all levels, agro-dealers, and other international organizations,” said Jim DiFrancesca, PCI’s Director of Humanitarian Assistance and Resilience Unit. “This includes reinforcing local, traditional practices for dealing with outbreaks, as well as developing new, innovative strategies based on research and piloting of new approaches.”