Although damage from Kenya’s locust plague has so far been limited, many farmers are worried about its potential effects on the next harvest. Tom Collins reports from Nairobi
Swarms of desert locusts that originated in Yemen last July have made their way into East Africa, leading to what the UN has described as Kenya’s worst locust infestation in 70 years.
By mid-February, 17 counties had been affected, with many more under threat if the government and its development partners are unable to prevent the current swarm from laying eggs and spawning another generation.
The locusts are estimated to number in the billions. While a swarm covering 1 sq km can contain 40-80m individuals, at the end of January a large cloud in northeast Kenya was estimated to spread over 2,400 sq km. A single locust can consume its own weight in food every day, and a swarm of 40m will work its way through the daily equivalent of food for 35,000 people. Swarms can travel up to 150km per day and can be extremely hard to contain.
Kenya’s agriculture sector accounts for approximately one quarter of the country’s overall GDP and employs around half of the total labour force, leaving many concerned about the potentially disastrous effects on the economy and food security.
“For us in the private sector we are really very worried,” says Lucy Muchoki, coordinator of the Kenya Agribusiness and Agroindustry Alliance (KAAA).
“You just need to go an speak to the farmers on the ground and you can sense the fear.”
More to come
Kenya’s short-term agricultural output has been shielded from serious disruption with economists predicting only a 0.8% drop in GDP as a worse-case scenario, according to London-based Capital Economics.
Much of Kenya’s agricultural produce had already reached harvest-maturity when the locusts, which prefer to feast on green vegetation and shrubs, arrived in December.
As farmers begin to plant crops in preparation for Kenya’s long rains which run from April to June, many fear the locusts will have spawned a much larger generation which will wipe out the country’s next harvest.
If allowed to breed, Kenya could be facing 500 times as many locusts by June.
“We were lucky because when the locusts invaded Kenya the crops had already matured and the locusts only eat the greener parts of plants, so the damage was limited to that extent,” says Hamisi Williams, deputy country representative at the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
“Now it’s almost time for planting the fear is that if those crops were to start germinating and we still have locusts around then those crops will be no more.”
Desert locusts are commonly found in arid and semi-arid habitats. Their ideal conditions for procreation are sandy soil, large pastures and ample wind, which make parts of northern Kenya a perfect breeding ground.
Though spawning will cause great damage if not prevented, the current swarms which migrated from Somalia and Ethiopia are nonetheless already troubling some of Kenya’s most destitute communities.
Pastoralists in northern Kenya have seen much of their grazing grounds destroyed, forcing herders to walk miles in search of pasture
These communities have suffered two serious droughts since 2018 during the short rains season running from October to December as well as a recent bout of heavy flooding, resulting in 3.1m people facing acute food insecurity according to Save the Children.
“Where the swarms enter, they clear the pasture for livestock which will destroy the livelihoods of pastoralists living in that area,” says Moses Emalu, country operations and humanitarian coordinator for the NGO.
“The biggest concern is food security.”
Most agribusinesses have thus far managed to remain shielded from the negative effects, though any change to agricultural output risks pushing prices up and sparking inflation.
Some of Kenya’s large producers import raw materials from abroad and will therefore be able to avoid any disruption to supply chains. Elsewhere, Kenya’s export-led flower industry, which often relies on large tents and greenhouses to grow produce, will most likely be able to prevent its crops from being eaten.
Yet smallholders, who so often feed into the supply chains of larger companies, remain at serious risk if the swarms are prevalent when the next crop cycle begins. Some farmers in Meru have already reported the decimation of the cash crop miraa, otherwise known as khat, and many fear widespread disruptions in other crops across the country.
As Kenya scrambles to respond, the KAAA says the government is yet to hold meetings with the private sector to advise on any worst-case scenario.
“The private sector is expecting the government to do more than they are doing,” says coordinator Muchoki. “We want to have frank discussions with the government, we want to know exactly what is happening and what the situation is. We want to know how they can improve on what they have been doing.”
The government, working in partnership with development agencies, is yet to provide an impact assessment to accurately quantify the possible fallout for businesses and the economy. Commodity traders in Nairobi and Mombasa are reportedly hoarding goods, fearing a shock to the economy.
The government, however, remains confident that it can thwart the spawning of a second-generation and therefore avert a full-blown crisis.
“If we had many swarms hatching in an uncontrolled manner it would impact food security and it would impact livelihoods,” says David Mwangi, the head of plant protection services at the Ministry of Agriculture. “But we cannot let that happen, so we are not going to have that worst-case scenario. That would only happen if we are not doing anything, but we are ensuring that that does not occur.”
The government has sent six helicopters to spray the swarms and hatching sites with pesticides, accompanied by teams on the ground. The National Youth Service has recently begun to enlist and train volunteers to assist with the spraying and county governments are also rolling out control operations in the areas affected. Yet the government’s lack of resources and technical expertise leaves it unprepared for the long-term dangers of a potential crisis.
The FAO recently estimated that East Africa needs $76m to contain the phenomenon, up from previous estimates of $70m. While the UN is raising the money, many are concerned the funds will take too long to materialise. Delays to the provision of $500,000 during a locust invasion in West Africa in 2004 led to a revised figure of $500m just two weeks later amid a quickly worsening crisis.
Another concern is the region’s capacity to formulate a coordinated response to the infestation. As locusts cover so much ground in just one day, country-specific prevention will do little to counter the breeding cycle if swarms are able to lay eggs and hatch in a neighbouring country.
Without adequate control mechanisms in restive Somalia, for example, northern Kenya will continue to be plagued by locusts despite all its best efforts.