Locust Invasion Threatens Food Security in Eastern Africa

The rapid growth and movement of the locusts has been attributed to the heavy rains

By Alis Okonji

ASARECA scientists and partners have described the current locust invasion as the worst plague in 25 years. The Desert Locust invasion is rapidly spreading to Somalia’s neighboring countries.

By December 2019, swarms of locusts had invaded various parts of Somalia and Ethiopia, destroying over 100,000 hectares of crops and grazing land. During the same period, locusts were first sighted in Northern Kenya and have over the past few weeks spread to neighboring counties within the country.

The rapid growth and movement of the locusts has been attributed to the heavy rains and windy season towards the end of 2019, that enabled a breeding environment for the destructive insects. Authorities have warned that the hoppers are spreading rapidly and if they maintain their current growth and movement trend, will be in Uganda and South Sudan in the coming weeks.

“There has been increase in swarm activity during the past week in Kenya where numerous, large immature swarms are spreading from the initial invasion areas,” said FAO, in its Desert Locust situation update.

Understanding the locust life cycle

Unlike other insects, the locust does not undergo the full process of metamorphosis; it goes through egg-nymph-adult stages lacking the pupa stage and has a varying lifecycle depending on the species of the locust.

Shortly after mating, female locusts lay eggs in suitable locations- often moist sand soils and hatch in between 10-20 days depending on temperature and moisture conditions.

Before the locusts can fly, they are referred to as Fledglings and consume a lot of green foods to boost their wing development and egg production.

Once they can fly, the locusts swarm together in areas with green food, migrating in huge swarms after the exhaustion of their current feeds.

The life-span of locusts is up to eight weeks in which they reproduce and die.

Invasion/Infestation Period

Under normal circumstances, according to scientists, locusts’ invasions in any particular area, often last for approximately three months.

However, with a conducive environment, like in East Africa, where heavy cyclones of rains were experienced in regions believed to have been egg-laying grounds, the locust invasion in Eastern Africa could last up to six months.

The implications of a six-month invasion could be tragic to nations as most farmers in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia have already experienced tremendous losses in their crops and grazing land.

Majority of smallholder famers in these regions rely on mixed farming; crops and livestock keeping, that is under attack by the locusts. As farmers and their households rely on crops and livestock products for food and economic growth, so are their livestock relying on crops and green leafy trees for food, the same grazing feed under attack by locusts.

Effective Interventions

Smallholder farmers in the region are calling upon their governments and international aid to implement measures to ensure that the already threatened state of food security does not deteriorate any further.

The Kenyan and Ethiopian governments have been conducting aerial spraying and ground control measures amid concern of the type of pesticides being used. Many farmers in Mandera and Wajir have indicated that the pesticides sprayed by the government have very little to no effects on the mature locusts. In a distressed attempt to contain the situation, police in Kenya resorted to shooting in the air and lobbing tear gas at the insects, a move that proved futile. Panicked farmers in Kenya have been sighted desperately attempting to scare off large swarms of locusts by clapping their hands, drumming, and whistling.

The conflicts and chaos in Somalia have further made aero spraying insecticides which is the ideal control measure impossible.

The United Nations also warned that if immediate action is not taken in Somalia, the invasion is most likely to spread to South Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, and back into Southern Ethiopia.

With the locusts capable of destroying over 200,000 kilograms of vegetation per day, this invasion could lead to extreme hunger and poverty among these developing nations, some of which are just recovering from a succession of failed rains and ensuing drought and flooding that devastated food crops.

Scientists are now advising governments and pest-control agencies on the best interventions and measures including the most effective time to spray locusts to avoid future re-occurrences of the magnitude of invasion as experienced today.

The Desert Locust Control Organization for Eastern Africa (DLCO-EA) through Chief Research Officer Osman Mohamed Abdulla (PhD) is now advising countries to spray the locusts during their nymph stages.

“Once they can fly, the locusts move faster and create more damage. Spraying them on the ground is more economical and efficient,”Osman Mohamed Abdulla (PhD).

In the past, between 2003-2005 over 12 million hectares of land had to be treated in North West Africa, Sudan, Egypt and parts of Saudi Arabia.

ASARECA is currently working on medium to long term interventions to safeguard the food and nutrition security, and economic growth of Eastern and Central Africa.


Date Published: 
Friday, 24 January 2020