Fall armyworm in Rwanda

One morning in April 2017, in the middle of what is referred to in the country as agriculture season B, which starts in March and ends in April, farmers in Rwanda woke up to a strange phenomenon in their maize plots. The leaves of their barely knee high crop were completely tattered, as if hit by a hailstorm.

Closer inspection revealed the culprit to be a caterpillar, which some farmers assumed to be a stemborer, a common maize pest in the region, while others believed it was a new entrant. Although the initial assessment differed, the knee jerk reaction among the farmers was similar.

Jean Claude Mpumuje – farmer

“Most of us rushed to our nearest agro-dealerships and asked for the strongest pesticide, capable of killing any pest,” recalls Jean Claude Mpumuje, a farmer from Gatsibo, Eastern Province, Rwanda.

As he further observes, this effort turned out to be futile. “We sprayed our crop at least five times in that season, to no avail. The pest’s damage continued relentlessly. It was quite clear we were going to lose most of the yield.” 

A new menace

Meanwhile, efforts led by the Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB) confirmed the worst: the new pest was the fall armyworm, a destructive moth that causes devastating damage to almost 100 plant species, including sorghum, rice, wheat and sugarcane, as well as a variety of horticultural crops. Until 2016, the fall armyworm was constrained to its native region of origin, the Western Hemisphere (from the United States of America to Argentina). However, in January 2016, the pest was reported in Nigeria, and it has since spread at an alarming rate across Africa.

As is the case with many African countries, for Rwanda, the arrival of the fall armyworm was a source of great concern. In the country, maize is highly important with most farmers allocating a sizeable part of their land to the crop. For example, of his seven hectares, Mr Mpumuje apportion 1.5 to maize cultivation. Aside from household consumption, farmers sell surplus maize for extra income.

Before the arrival of the fall armyworm, farmers in Rwanda were already dealing with a range of constraints in maize production including climatic changes resulting in dry spells, stemborer pests, and, most importantly, the devastating parasitic Striga.

 “For many years, we have fought a losing battle with Striga; trying a range of options, from using organic manure, and uprooting the plant and dumping it on the road. Having to deal with a new, and obviously very destructive pest, was very worrying, ”notes Theresa Mukandarima, a farmer from Nyagatare, Eastern Province, Rwanda.

The presence of the fall armyworm also posed challenges for the Crop Intensification Programme of Rwanda, a government plan launched in 2007 as the flagship for food security and strengthened agricultural productivity in the country.

Swift response

The government of Rwanda responded swiftly to the fall armyworm threat, initiating collaborative efforts involving a range of stakeholders including the Ministry of Local Government, Rwanda Defense Force, Rwanda National Police and communities. The efforts consisted of massive training and awareness campaigns, hand picking of the pests, distribution of subsidised pestcides, and installation of pheromone traps in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). To some extent, these efforts were successful, as there was a clear reduction of fall armyworm,

Meanwhile, RAB advanced discussions with icipe on the dissemination of Push-pull in Rwanda, as a technology that could address the new menace posed by the fall armyworm, as well as the previous challenges of stemborer, Striga and increasingly harsh weather. (see separate story icipe Push-Pull in Rwanda: Key milestones)

“By coincidence, icipe, with support from Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development, Switzerland, was in the process of extending Push-Pull beyond East Africa,” notes Dr Saliou Niassy, Head, Technology Transfer Unit, icipe.  “Therefore, we were able to embark on collaborative efforts with different stakeholders in Rwanda.”

Push-Pull evidence

icipe officially started implementation of Push-Pull in Rwanda in December 2017, with Food for the hungry as the lead partner. As of May 2018, about 240 farmers in Gatsibo and Nyagatare, in Eastern Province Rwanda, are involved in trials of the technology. Farmers plant two plots: one under Push-Pull and another as a control.  

Among the farmers involved in the trials is Mr Mpumuje 2007, a former veterinary officer, who has served as a Food for the Hungry lead farmer since 2017, chosen due to his advance farming knowledge and interest in using modern agricultural approaches. He harvested 82 kilogrammes of maize from the Push-Pull plot and 54 kilogrammes from the control. “I noticed some fall armyworms when maize was young, but they disappeared with time,” he observed.

Mrs Mukandarima, chosen to participate in the Push-Pull trials by RAB has also noticed yield increases. In addition, she states: “Besides the improved harvest, we are now fortunate to obtain fodder for animals. And, most significantly, for me, the Striga problem has been contained.”

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Donor acknowledgment

The dissemination of Push-Pull in Rwanda is supported by the Push-Pull sub-Saharan Africa project, funded by Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development, Switzerland. Overall, the icipe Push-Pull integrated pest management programme is supported by: the European Union; Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, UK through Rothamsted Research, UK; and Biovision Foundation for Ecological Development, Switzerland. icipe gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the following core donors: Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC); Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida); UK Aid, from the government of the United Kingdom; the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Kenya; and the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of these donors.