PlantVillage’s Innovative Approach: Combating Fall Armyworm for Sustainable Food Security
In a groundbreaking demonstration of the potential of research and development in the agricultural sector, PlantVillage, operating through Dream Team Agro Consultancy Limited in Kenya, is taking remarkable strides toward fostering food security and sustainability. A recent visit by the United States Ambassador to Kenya, Meg Whitman, alongside key representatives from USAID, underscored the vital role this youth-led company plays in addressing agricultural challenges and propelling innovation in the field.
The visit, which took place on August 15, 2023, at the PlantVillage Eldoret office, was a testament to the collective efforts in combating one of Kenya’s most pressing agricultural issues — the fall armyworm pest that affects maize. Ambassador Whitman, accompanied by USAID/Kenya Mission director David Gosney, deputy Mission director Bert Ubamadu and director of Economic Growth and Integration Harrigan Mukhongo, engaged with the PlantVillage team to recognize their contributions to food security.
Central to this recognition was PlantVillage’s research program, supported by USAID through the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Current and Emerging Threats to Crops. The program aims to mass produce natural enemies, specifically parasitoids, to combat the destructive fall armyworm pest. This pest poses a significant threat to Kenya’s staple food, maize, affecting a staggering 90% of farms. The devastating effects result in yield losses ranging from 630 to 900 kg per acre, in contrast to the potential 1,980 to 3,150 kg per acre.
The economic impact of this pest is equally striking. Approximately 1.17 million tonnes, valued at $300 million, are lost annually due to fall armyworm and stem borer infestations. Moreover, the attack exacerbates aflatoxin contamination, posing a substantial health hazard. Often, small-scale farmers resort to synthetic pesticides to combat the pest, leading to adverse effects on human health and the environment. PlantVillage’s preliminary surveys revealed that farmers spend up to $76 solely on pesticides.
Addressing this critical issue, PlantVillage employs an innovative integrated pest management (IPM) strategy by utilizing friendly insects, known as parasitoids, to control fall armyworm infestations. This approach has demonstrated its effectiveness, eco-friendliness and cost-efficiency. Farmers can now spend as little as $20 per acre, a significant reduction compared to traditional pesticide expenses.
Brenda Cheptoo, PlantVillage’s Parasitoids lead, highlighted, “These friendly insects naturally exist in the farmers’ fields, but the overuse of harmful pesticides has significantly diminished their population. What we’re doing is reintroducing these friendly insects back into the maize fields.”
The impact of PlantVillage’s efforts extends far and wide. With rearing facilities that have produced and released over 65 million parasitoids, the initiative has reached across various counties, including Uasin Gishu, Busia, Bungoma, Kakamega, Vihiga, Trans Nzoia, Kilifi, Homabay, Siaya, Bomet, Nakuru, Machakos, Meru, Kisii, Baringo and Nandi counties. More than 10,000 farmers have benefited from this approach, which simultaneously promotes sustainable agriculture and provides valuable employment opportunities.
Dr. John Chelal, PlantVillage director in Kenya, shared, “Our three labs have employed 24 youths and 100 women distributing agents who run daily activities in the rearing facilities to enhance and meet our large-scale production and distribution demand.”
During the visit, Ambassador Whitman also gained insights into the PlantVillage Nuru mobile application, a powerful tool for detecting fall armyworm damage. This smartphone application empowers farmers to monitor pest activity, providing crucial data that aids PlantVillage experts in offering precise assistance. Integration of farmer input, satellite imagery and artificial intelligence (AI) enables timely parasitoid releases, effective monitoring and augmentation efforts.
In closing, Ambassador Whitman expressed gratitude for PlantVillage’s commitment to equipping youth with technology that helps farmers adapt to the challenges posed by climate change. The remarkable efforts of PlantVillage, as showcased through this visit, stand as a testament to the transformative potential of innovative research and development in revolutionizing the agricultural sector for a more sustainable future.