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Using technology to boost war on pests

Thirteen plant clinics each manned by two agricultural officers open in Embu in a Sh800 million project led by a UK-based non-governmental organisation

green crop of maize on John Njagi Mugambi’s farm in Manyatta sub-county, Embu county looks healthy and lush from a distance.

What you cannot see are  tell-tale holes in manyof the leaves and some debris on the stem, which indicate an increasingly dangerous secret hidden in many maize fields in Kenya and the sub-Saharan Africa region. The rampant fall army worm caterpillar is once again threatening harvests for the second year running.

Despite John’s effort to ward off the caterpillar by spraying the crop with pesticides four times this season, nothing has changed. “It is something that had not occurred here before. The invasion was so fast and furious that I was forced to use any pesticide to try and control it,” he says.

As he was spraying his maize crop one day, John heard about plant clinics from a neighbour, who advised him to take a sample of the infected crop to a new plant clinic nearby.  This is a meeting place where local plant health extension officers known as ‘plant doctors’ help farmers struggling with plant diseases.

On reaching the clinic, he told the ‘doctor’ his woes and also gave out samples of the infected crop. After an examination and analysis, the doctor confirmed  that his farm had been invaded by fall army worm, advised and trained him on detection and responsible pesticide application.  “I was advised on treating crops with pesticides in the mornings or late afternoon when the caterpillars are active and spraying to the sides to avoid direct contact with the cobs,”  John said.

Space technology

The scientists provide diagnoses and management advice for any problem and also physically visit farms. “We have 13 plant clinics in Embu and each clinic has at least two officers,” said Pauline Muriithi, agribusiness officer, Manyatta sub-county also as the plant clinics coordinator.

All ‘doctors’ are agriculture officers and are also trained by UK-based Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) on plant health issues.  The pest, which arrived in Africa from the America in 2016, affected around 50,000 hectares of maize in Kenya alone last year, wasting nearly 25 per cent of the crop, government officials say.

This year, the losses could be as high as 50 per cent, threatening Kenyan’s food security and farmers’ economic security in a country where the average annual consumption of maize surpasses 100kg per person.

Such invasions will be minimised following introduction of Pest Risk Information Service (Prise) project, which aims to fight pest invasions. The project uses a state-of-the-art technology to inform farmers of pest outbreaks that could devastate their crops.

The programme is being led by the UK-based Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) with £6.38 million (almost $8 million) funding for the next five years from the UK Space Agency.  It is being piloted in Embu county.

Partners in the project include the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) and the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries. It aims at  forecasting the risk of pest outbreaks before they occur by  using  a combination of earth observation technology, satellite positioning and plant life cycles.

“This pest forecasting system collects and combines disparate datasets, manipulates data using computational and modelling expertise and leverages well-established international development networks,” said Cambria Finegold, Global Director knowledge Management CABI.

Once the data is collected, it is then fed into the local models planted in different farms such as a Kalro model farm to validate the results. In case there are indications of pest outbreaks,  messages and mitigation measures are communicated to farmers by tablet or mobile phones. The project is being deployed in partnership with plant clinics so that farmers can respond more efficiently to the risks posed to their crops, as the group continues to monitor and evaluate the project’s impact.

“Despite general consensus on the threats from pests and diseases to global production, monitoring and evaluation of the damage caused is poorly understood but innovation can provide new solutions,” said Cambria.

The project was launched in Zambia late last year is expected to be rolled in five more sub-Saharan African countries.

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