Each day, specialised pilots climb into planes and helicopters and take flight above Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. On the ground, experts from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), government teams and farmers direct them towards the threat. Upon arrival, they spray gallons of pesticide in a desperate attempt to subdue the worst locust plague in decades.
According to the World Bank, the current locust infestation will cost East Africa and Yemen $8.5bn this year. Charlie Mitchell reports on local and international efforts to stem the plague
In recent months, teams have saved 600,000 hectares of vegetation and crops, says Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer at the FAO. That is equivalent to 1.2m tonnes of food, or sustenance for 8.2m people. “The efforts that have been achieved so far have had a very positive impact, yet it’s not enough,” he says. “We still have locust swarms.”
According to the World Bank, the infestation will cost East Africa and Yemen $8.5bn this year, exacerbate food insecurity and send shockwaves through the economies of Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda and others. While the coronavirus captures the headlines, the insects are wreaking their own distinct form of havoc.
Local, national and international efforts to confront the problem have so far proven inadequate, leaving affected smallholder farmers praying for a change in the weather. With the exception of more diversified Kenya, agriculture contributes around 30% of regional GDP and employs 65% of its workforce.
Billions of the three-inch-long insects arrived from Yemen in late 2019, dispersed by cyclones and chasing unseasonably wet weather. But what followed in June was a powerful second wave, 400 times larger. The effect has been likened to the 2019 Australian bushfires, which decimated an area the size of Portugal.
“This is similar to the situation in the 1950s,” says Cressman. “Despite advances in technology, when you have a very unusual combination of weather and very favourable circumstances for the locusts, they can get out of control.”
Their consumption of crops and grazing land makes for grim reading. A swarm measuring one square kilometre is capable of eating the same amount of food as 35,000 people in a day, and swarms can grow several hundred times bigger. Cressman says rain-fed cereal crops, including millet and sorghum, have been hardest hit. Then the insects move onto leaves, flowers, cereals and rice.
The situation is particularly worrisome in Kenya, which has not had such a serious locust infestation for 70 years and therefore lacks vital infrastructure and expertise. Somalia, still plagued by insecurity, and Ethiopia, where prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s transformation efforts have given way to violent protests, are also in deep trouble.
But swarms have also been seen in South Sudan, Rwanda and Uganda, and could spread west across the conflict-ridden Sahel to fertile West Africa if the weather changes.
Ahmed Soliman, a Horn of Africa research fellow at Chatham House, says the locust plague might have damaged 200,000 hectares of arable land in Ethiopia alone. “For many countries in the region, agriculture makes up 30-40% of GDP and employs as much as 80% of the population in some capacity, so it’s a huge impact.”
Around 75% of East African growers are smallholders, currently facing a triple threat of locusts, flooding and the economically ruinous coronavirus pandemic.
“Covid-19 is already disrupting markets, driving up food prices, squeezing small businesses and limiting livestock trade,” says Allison Huggins, Mercy Corps deputy regional director for Africa, in a statement.
Locust swarms hit farmers in their pockets and stomachs. Already, 20m people in the region do not have secure access to food, according to the World Food Programme, but the pandemic and locusts could see that doubled in months. Crops vitally important to East African economies including bananas, barley, coffee and cotton are currently being overrun.
The insects also push herders to non-traditional grazing lands – a challenge in itself due to coronavirus lockdowns and curfews – often leaving women behind to feed children. This sometimes leads to violent clashes with farmers, adding to disputes of the sort that have left more than 8,000 people dead in Nigeria’s arid Middle Belt since 2011. Malnourished animals fetch less at market and provide less milk for children.
Meanwhile, hits to farmer livelihoods have escalated into macroeconomic shocks. “Key financial indicators like real GDP growth, revenue, exports, and possibly debt are being impacted negatively by the locust swarms,” says Kelvin Dalrymple, a vice president at Moody’s. As a result, the firm has revised its 2020 GDP growth estimates downwards for several regional countries.
“Lower agriculture contribution to GDP growth will dampen government revenue generation capacity at a time when financial market volatility is already constraining liquidity and creating funding challenges,” says Dalrymple.
The swarms will test limited food stocks in the fragile region, add to public debt, remove a vital economic driver and exacerbate inflationary pressure exerted by Covid-19 related export cuts and panic buying. That could cheapen regional currencies and prevent East African countries from paying off external debt stocks.
All that is a recipe for political insecurity, with Sudan and Ethiopia in particular currently undergoing transitions. “Countries in the Horn have quite fragile political situations,” says Soliman. “The desert locusts are an added layer that could lead towards tipping the balance towards conflict.” In recent weeks, Ethiopia has experienced an uptick in ethnonational violence, with the swarms “adding to stress levels,” he adds.
Fortunately, international and local organisations and governments are waging war on the insects. In May, the World Bank pledged $500m for affected countries, partly in grants and low-interest loans directly to farmers, while the FAO has sought more than $300m from donors. The FAO is also testing drones for locust surveillance and control in Kenya, although payload and battery problems persist.
However, Cressman says that the Covid-19 pandemic is hindering control efforts by closing airports, keeping experts away and delaying deliveries of pesticide. In Somalia, for instance, much-needed pesticide arrived in June, three months late, meaning the FAO missed an entire generation of locusts. In Kenya, social distancing rules are hindering on-the-job training.
African farmers are using apps, developed by the FAO and Penn State University to direct spray-planes to swarms. The data is uploaded automatically when the farmer has connectivity, while growers can communicate with one another on the app. These techniques reflect the rise of precision agriculture in Africa, where smallholder farmers are increasingly maximising yields with digital solutions.
However, the FAO has just four planes in Kenya, four in Ethiopia, and two helicopters in Somalia, meaning pilots often cannot reach infested areas before the locusts relocate. That has left some farmers in Kenya’s hard-hit Turkana County pouring leaves boiled in washing powder on affected areas.
Locust swarms of biblical proportions and the Covid-19 pandemic therefore look set to slash East African growth projections and sap investor confidence in the region. And as the swarms continue to eat everything in their path, growing in strength and numbers, those tasked with fighting them are running out of options.
“This summer there should be very good progress made in reducing the locust numbers,” says Cressman. “But if the weather continues to be favourable for the locusts, they will continue to breed.”