Rwanda is stepping up efforts to counter desert locusts that have devastated crops in the East African region.
The locust originated from Ethiopia and headed east and central African nations through Kenya into the DR Congo.
“To counter the locust entrance and spread, Rwanda agriculture ministry is working hand in hand with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Rwanda office to monitor the extent of the outbreak and study ways to counter locusts,” Jean Claude Musabyimana, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture told Nation Magazine.
Toll free line
Though there is no disclosed specific budget to counter the locust attack, the Agriculture ministry said it has specialist team on ground and are ready to use spraying methods recommended by FAO.
“We have set up a toll free number (4127) for farmers to report cases or inform local authorities, so that we can provide immediate intervention with assessment of the situation on ground,” Musabyimana said.
It’s believed scientifically that the locust breed and spread quickly, traveling 150 km in a single day, especially in low altitude areas such as deserts and semi-arid areas. Desert locusts are known for their rapid reproduction and ability to migrate long distances with the wind.
In “quiet periods” they typically stay within deserts in Africa, the Near East and Asia, according to FAO.
The attack has left some nations devastated and prone to food shortages, but also raised a red alert for some countries to prepare since most of them were caught unprepared for the attack that had not been seen in ages.
Scientific explanation to the outbreak, which started in the areas around the Red Sea, a key winter breeding area for desert locusts, and spread through the Horn of Africa and into East Africa, is that it was fostered by a long dry spell followed by sudden high rainfall.
The locust outbreak is said to be the worst in 70 years in Kenya, and the worst in 25 years in Somalia and Ethiopia, where the insects bred before spreading to Kenya and other countries.
Being close to Ethiopia, countries like Kenya were the hardest hit especially in the northern region, where locust swarms were seen to move like huge dark clouds before descending on farms, nibbling away pasture, maize, khat, cowpeas, beans and other crops in hours. Although the government has sprayed pesticide and other chemicals on a wide range of areas in order to curb the locust outbreak, at least 18 of Kenya’s 47 counties were affected.
According to the latest FAO Locust spread forecast map, swarms of locust managed to make their way downwards into Uganda, and were supposed to move to Tanzania and possibly enter Rwanda.
A mature swarm arrived in the northeast Uganda from adjacent areas of western Kenya on Feb. 24 and a collection of the locust has been cited in DR Congo.
“A small group of mature desert locusts arrived on the western shore of Lake Albert near Bunia on 21 February after crossing northern Uganda on strong northeasterly winds,” the FAO said in a statement.
These surrounding threats have put Rwanda on a high alert as it neighbors both Uganda and DR Congo in the east and western respectively.
Look-alike cause scare
In mid-February the threat was heightened when look-alikes of desert locust were reported in small numbers but potential devastating food crops in the eastern region in the Karama and Musheri Sectors in Nyagatare district.
On seeing the yellow spotted insects with locust like features, farmers in the area were sent into a panic sharing pictures on social media platforms seeking expert views.
“When I saw these insects I was afraid they are the desert locust attacking us, and I had to call friends and officials to my rescue,” said Emmanuel Ndayambaje, a maize farmer in Nyamiyonga cell in Nyagatare.
A joint team comprised of Rwanda Agriculture Board and district staff was dispatched to the fields where the insects were spotted but their report indicated these were just crickets, not locusts, based on their features.
Task force set up
Rwanda government has set up a taskforce comprised of the prime minister’s office, local government, agriculture ministry and FAO officials in wake of the threat.
“The locusts’ threat last affected Rwanda several decades ago. Right now, they are still far away from us. If you look at the movement pattern of these locust swarms, you note that normally they first eat up an area before they move on,” Dr. Patrick Karangwa, Director-General of Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB) said.
Rwanda’s climate doesn’t favor desert locust? In a statement, FAO Rwanda said that “Rwanda is on alert though the climate conditions for the desert locust to breed in Rwanda are not favorable since the country is in a high altitude area and hilly, which make it hard for the locust to breed in cold conditions”.
Though, Rwanda doesn’t see a big threat in this, government officials are not taking chances. Desert locust comes at a time when the country is planning on using drones to spray mosquito breeding areas. On the other hand, Rwanda’s ministry of finance sees the desert locust as an equal threat, like the coronavirus spread to the country’s 2020 economic performance projected to growth at 8.1%.
“Any of these shocks (desert locust or coronavirus) will affect the economy but also result to tighten the financial policies to absorb these uncertainties. For now we cannot assess the impact but only wait to see what will happen,” Central Bank Governor John Rwangombwa said during the presentation of the first Monetary Policy and Financial Stability Statement 2020, in February.