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The US Agency for International Development (USAID) recently offered prize money for the best and digital tools that can be used to help combat the fall armyworm (FAW), an invasive pest that has spread across Africa. The winners will be announced in the coming months.
Identified in over 35 African countries since 2016, the FAW is expected to continue to spread, threatening food security and agricultural trade in African countries.
But this is not the first invasive pest the African continent is dealing with. Just a few years ago, African smallholder farmers battled the invasive South American tomato moth, Tuta absoluta. According to recent research, five invasive insect pests including T. absoluta cost the African continent US$ 1.1 billion every year.
Around the world, invasive pests are causing US$540 billion in economic losses to agriculture each year despite the fact that many countries are doing their best to prevent insect invasions now and into the future.
Tackling invasive pests reactively
To deal with invasive insects, African countries assisted by other stakeholders including aid agencies such as the USAID, research institutions such as the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology, the Center for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI, the parent organization of SciDev.Net) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) have repeatedly taken the reactive rather than a proactive approach in tackling the invasive pests only after they have established a foothold and caused considerable damage.
Ghana, for example, established a National Taskforce to control and manage FAW after the worms had invaded local fields. This taskforce mandate includes sensitising farmers and making them aware of the symptoms of armyworm attacks so they can report infestations to authorities and undertaking research aimed at finding short and long term solutions to combat the spread of FAW.
“While many of these strategies are working, one cannot help but wonder what it would take for African governments to get ahead of this problem.”
Esther Ngumbi, University of Illinois
Malawi’s government prioritised the use of pesticides as an immediate and short-term strategy to fight the FAW after many of their smallholder farmers lost crops to this invasive insect. Further, the government intensified training and awareness campaigns about this pest and installed pheromone traps to help monitor the spread only after the pest had established a foothold.
The FAO, a leader in the efforts to deal with invasive pests in Africa, has spearheaded many efforts including bringing together experts from the Americas, Africa and other regions to share and update each other on FAW. The FAO has launched a mobile cell phone app to be used as an early warning system tool. But again, many of these efforts happened after the first detection of the FAW.
While many of these strategies are working, one cannot help but wonder what it would take for African governments to get ahead of this problem. How can aid agencies such as the USAID, UN FAO and other development partners that are currently spending billions to fight the invasive FAW help Africa to take the necessary steps to ensure that it is better prepared to deal with invasive insects now and into the future?
Anticipate and prepare
Recent research predicts that threat from invasive insects will continue to increase with African countries expected to be the most vulnerable. African governments must anticipate and prepare for such invasions using already available resources.
Early this year, CABI launched invasive species Horizon Scanning Tool (beta), a tool that allows countries to identify potential invasive species. This online and open source tool supported by United States Department of Agriculture and the UK Department for International Development allows countries to generate a list of invasive species that are absent from their countries at the moment but present in ‘source areas’, which may be relevant because they are neighboring countries, linked by trade and transport routes, or sharing similar climates. Doing so could allow African countries to prepare action plans that can be quickly rolled out when potential invaders actually arrive.
Learn from other regions
Africa can learn from other regions that have comprehensive plans on dealing with invasive insects and countries that have gone through similar invasions. The United States and Australia are examples of countries that have comprehensive plans on preventing and dealing with insect invasions, while Brazil has gone through its own FAW invasion.
“African governments must learn to be proactive rather than reactive in dealing with invasive insects.”
Esther Ngumbi, University of Illinois
Through workshops and training programmes that help bring experts together, African countries can learn how to prevent and deal with future insect invasions. Moreover, key actors including the USAID and the FAO should help organise more workshops and training programmes to that enable African experts to learn from their counterparts overseas. At the same time, the manuals, and all the information exchanged and learned during such workshops could be stored in online repositories that can be accessed by all African countries.
Strengthen African pest surveillance
A recent USAID Feed the Future funded technical brief, which I helped to write, looked at the strength of existing African plant protection regulatory frameworks by examining eight indicators including the existence of a specified government agency mandated with the task of carrying out pest surveillance.
It reveals that many African countries have weak plant protection regulatory systems and that many governments do not carry out routine pest surveillance which involves the collection, recording , analysis, interpretation and timely dissemination of information about the presence, prevalence and distribution of pests.
The International Plant Protection Convention offers a comprehensive document that can help African countries to design pest surveillance programmes. Also, the convention offers other guiding documents that can be used by African countries to strengthen their plant protection frameworks. African countries can use this available documents to strengthen national and regional pest surveillance abilities.
Set up emergency funds
Invasive insects know no borders. Thus, African countries must work together. At the same time, given the rapid spread of invasive insect outbreaks, the African continent must set up an emergency fund that can easily be tapped when insects invade. In dealing with the recent FAW invasion, it was evident that African countries and the continent did not have an emergency financing plan. This must change.By anticipating potential invasive insects and learning from countries that have comprehensive national plant protection frameworks, Africa can be prepared for the next insect invasion. African governments must learn to be proactive rather than reactive in dealing with invasive insects.
Doing so will help safeguard Africa’s agriculture and protect the meaningful gains made in agricultural development. Time is ripe.
Esther Ngumbi is a distinguished postdoctoral researcher with the Department of Entomology at the US-based University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, a World Policy Institute Senior Fellow, Aspen Institute New Voices Food Security Fellow, and a Clinton Global University Initiative Agriculture Commitments Mentor and Ambassador. She can be contacted at [email protected]
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.
 USAID: Fall Armyworm Tech Prize (USAID, 2018).
 Briefing note on FAO actions on fall armyworm in Africa (UN FAO, 31 January 2018)
 Corin F. Pratt and others Economic impacts of invasive alien species on African smallholder livelihoods (Global Food Security, vol 14, September 2017).
 Abigail Barker Plant health-state of research (Kew Royal Botanic gardens, 2017).
 US Embassy in Lilongwe United States assists Malawi to combat fall armyworm. (US Embassy, 13 February 2018).
 Joseph Opoku Gakpo Fall armyworm invasion spreads to Ghana (Cornell Alliance for Science, 19 May 2017).
 Kimberly Keeton Malawi’s new reality: Fall armyworm is here to stay (IFPRI, 26 February 2018).
 Malawi’s farmers resort to home-made repellents to combat armyworms (Reuters, 2018).
 Fall Armyworm (UN FAO, 2018).
 FAO launches mobile application to support fight against Fall Armyworm in Africa (UN FAO, 14 March 2018).
 Dean R. Paini and others Global threat to agriculture from invasive species (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 5 July 2016).
 CABI launches invasive species Horizon Scanning Tool (CABI, 2018).
 United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS, 2018).
 Australia Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (Australia Government, 2018).
 Plant protection EBA data in action technical brief (USAID FEED THE FUTURE, 26 January 2018).
 Guidelines for surveillance (International Plant Protection Convention, 2016)