A small caterpillar is destroying maize crops in various African countries, including Kenya. The plague hits Kenya at a bad time, with the country already afflicted by a drought and rising inflation. Silvia Antonioli reports.
They might not be real soldiers but they really are marching like an army. Crops have been attacked and eaten in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, South Africa, Uganda and more recently in Kenya. The culprit? This small but destructive caterpillar: the fall or autumn armyworm. They now threaten to wipe out the Kenyan maize crop, a crucial food staple for many Africans. The pest attacks young maize plants at their growing points and excavates the cobs. Kenyan farmer Elkana Lunani said the infestation is so heavy that about half of the 100 acres of seed maize he has planted is at risk. (SOUNDBITE) (English) FARMER, ELKANA LUNANI, SAYING: "I have done farming for many years more than 20 years and I have never seen this kind of pest. This is my first time, we have had other pests even the normal armyworms we see, those are very easy to control but this one is very difficult to control." The invasion couldn't come at a worst time for Kenya. The country is suffering from a drought that has left almost 3 million people in need of food and has pushed inflation near a five year high. The government is conducting emergency campaigns to educate farmers on how to identify the bug and is distributing pesticides that it hopes will stop them. But the fall armyworms are fighting back. (SOUNDBITE) (English) RESEARCH EXTENSION LIAISON OFFICER, TRANS-NZOIA COUNTY. MOSES BIKET, SAYING: "One moth is giving rise to 20,000 eggs and which incubate in the soil during the day but it is at night that they come out and forage on these leaves. So farmers when they spray during the day the effect is not being felt because these caterpillars are hiding inside the tunnel of the maize." Scientists now warn that in the next few years, the plague could reach tropical Asia and the Mediterranean, threatening agricultural trade.