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'Armyworm' infestation threatens crops in Zimbabwe

January 23, 2017

After a prolonged drought, incessant rains in most parts of Zimbabwe had raised hope that food shortages would be eased. But an outbreak of armyworms may be making the situation worse.

Simbabwe Dürre Mais Landwirtschaft
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Joe

After two years of drought, rain has finally returned to Zimbabwe. But with it has come an outbreak of armyworms that is now threatening crops - especially maize - the country's staple food.

Tatenda Mapfumo is a farmer in Mazowe District about 60 km (50 miles) north of Harare. It is one of the areas affected by the armyworm. He is appealing to the government and fellow farmers to fight the worm targeting his crops.

"I would want to tell the minster [of agriculture in Zimbabwe] to control the worm. They shouldn't take it for granted. It will actually reduce our yield," he said.

A foreign pest

The armyworm got its name because the invasive species travels in "armies" and consumes everything in its path. Some experts believe that the armyworm might have come into Zimbabwe through imports of food from other parts of the world.

Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of southern Africa, is largely dependent on food assistance due to the 2015-2016 drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon. This has been coupled with the chaotic land-reform program that removed white commercial farmers from their land.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has said that about one million people will need food assistance in Zimbabwe until March when the harvest season begins. But with the spread of the armyworm, that assistance may need to be extended.  

However Chimimba David Phiri, the head of the FAO for Southern Africa, said that the organization will ensure that the problem of armyworm would not have an impact on the issue of food insecurity.

Simbabwe Landwirtschaft Tatenda Mapfumo
Zimbabwean farmer Tatenda Mapfumo inspects his crop of maize that has been infested with armywormImage: DW/C. S. Mavhunga

"Communities and farmers that notice something strange should report it so that action can be taken as soon as quickly as possible, otherwise there is a contagion spreading from farm to farm and eventually from country to country," he said.

What is worrying the FAO is an outbreak of an armyworm species called "FALL" which Phiri said has only ever been seen on the African continent in Nigeria.

"The problem with the FALL armyworm is that it is not easily controllable with chemicals unless it has been identified on a farm an early stage," said Phiri. "Should it not be controlled in time it can be very devastating for all types of cereals particularly maize."

Worried farmers

Farmers in Zimbabwe fear that President Robert Mugabe's government is taking too long to provide pesticides and education to deal with the pest which might prolong the country's food shortages.

Farmer Tatenda Mapfumo is especially concerned because without government support, he fears that he lacks the money needed to buy enough pesticides to fight the outbreak.

"Armyworm has been a problem this season in my maize crop. We started spraying this past week and we are now starting to see the results," he said. "But it has been really a challenge."

The United Nations is reporting that the armyworm is now also being reported in Zambia and Malawi.