In Kenya, lessons from 2020 prepare responders for a locust re-invasion

Benjamin Galwaha, a community monitor holding an FAO-provided satellite device he uses in his locust-monitoring activities as he prepares to accompany a vehicle-borne sprayer to the field in Laisamis, Kenya. Photo by: Anthony Langat

MARSABIT COUNTY, Kenya — As 48-year-old Halake Boru walked through his maize farm in Dogogicha village in Marsabit county, he couldn’t help but imagine the bumper harvest he would have had this time last year had it not been for the locust invasion. In December 2019, his farm had a crop of mature, healthy beans and maize. Just days before the new year, a swarm of locusts descended upon his village, decimating crops and leaving him with less than half of what he had hoped to harvest.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the swarm swept through the rangeland near his village, eating up the vegetation that was pasture for villagers’ livestock. Villagers improvised by beating tins to chase them away, but the damage had already been done. In a matter of days, what would have sustained them for months was depleted by insects they had never seen before.

“We had to take our livestock far away in search of pasture, and therefore the family could not get milk,” Boru said.

After news of locust invasions in the northern part of Kenya spread, the government, the Food and Agriculture Organization, faith actors, and others scrambled to put together a response. Though they were initially hindered by a lack of funding and information, the novelty of the crisis, and unforgiving terrain, the locust invasion was under control after eight months of hard work and coordination.

Last year’s dispatch: Funding gaps could lead to locust devastation in East Africa

Massive swarms of desert locusts have invaded Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda. Can responders get enough funds to kill off the insects before the planting season starts in March?

Last month, the locusts returned to Kenya, hitting 15 out of 47 counties. But this time, partners in the fight say that the lessons from the first invasion have better prepared them for a possibly bigger swarm. They boast better equipment and technology, pesticides in stock, quick access to information, and eyes in the community, with trained monitors and a surveillance team.

Training community monitors

Marsabit County — the largest county in Kenya, situated in the North at the border with Ethiopia — has been one of the most affected regions. Approximately 80% of the county’s population of roughly 460,000 are pastoralists who depend on their sheep, goats, camels, and cattle for a living and face a serious threat to their livelihoods.

For years, the Roman Catholic Church, which has churches in the remotest of places in the county, has offered basic services and humanitarian assistance. Naturally, when the locusts struck the county last year, Caritas Marsabit, the development and humanitarian arm of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Marsabit, received calls from far and wide.

“With the help of [Catholic Relief Services] ... we were able to start with sensitization of the community about the locusts through radio stations. We then established and trained locust monitors to report on the locust locations. We, later on, engaged the community in a cash-for-work program where they cleared invasive species in the rangelands,” said Godfrey Godana, deputy director of programs at Caritas Marsabit.

“Getting information was a challenge. By the time you get information, locusts have already caused severe damage, particularly to the rangelands. This caused depletion of pasture for the community’s livestock and therefore loss of livelihoods,” he said.

To counter this, Caritas Marsabit helped find and train more community monitors in preparation for the next attack, with the belief that having more monitors on the ground will increase the speed of response.

Improved equipment and coordination

The government also believes it is better prepared this time around. “We have a proper understanding of the pests at the national, county, and community level. We are better prepared in terms of pesticides, equipment, vehicles, and training,” said Hamadi Boga, Kenya’s principal secretary for agriculture.

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Boga told Devex that the country has four spray aircraft and four surveillance aircraft. The Agriculture Ministry has also deployed more trucks mounted with pesticide sprayers and 500 national youth service personnel responsible for ground spraying. The Kenya Defence Forces are also helping with the control in areas that are deemed insecure, such as the northeastern and coastal parts of the country.

Community monitors, along with rangers from wildlife conservancies and government officials, have also been equipped with satellite devices that they can use to send in the coordinates of the locusts, even in places where there is no network. This allows the monitors to submit information to help determine the response.

Benjamin Galwaha is one of the selected community monitors. Last year, he used an application on his phone to send coordinates of locusts’ location, which posed a problem when his phone had no signal. This year, he is able to verify the type of locust, take photos, and send coordinates using his satellite device.

“We are assured of getting the full information, which includes size of the swarm in acreage, the GPS location, the type of locust, and their behavior, whether they are roosting or flying,” said Ambrose Ng’etich, livelihoods and resilience officer for FAO.

A pickup truck issued by the government and mounted with a pesticide sprayer is based in Laisamis — a small town in Marsabit County — and can be dispatched locally whenever a locust report is verified.

Border monitoring and funding

During the first wave, responders failed to monitor the border with Somalia where the locusts were crossing through. This time, new camps have been set up closer to the border for faster control.

“Most of the locust swarms ... are coming into the country through the Somalia border. … We receive two to three swarms every day, and a swarm could be diverse in size, from as small as 100 hectares to as big as 1,500 hectares,” Ng’etich said.

The country is mainly battling to control the swarms that crossed in through the Somalia border, as very minimal swarms were hatched domestically. The fact that the swarms coming in are immature, and that the current dry weather conditions do not favor their breeding, has been an advantage.

This time around, the country also managed to secure funding earlier for controlling the desert locusts. According to Boga, the government has a budget of $10 million, which will go toward surveillance and control, livelihood support, and sustainability. FAO has also requested additional funding of $33.8 million for its response in East Africa, which it said would go toward “additional financing for fuel, airtime, and pilot hours [for] the 28 anti-locust aircraft.” Of this amount, FAO was seeking $8 million specifically for Kenya.

Devex, with support from our partner GHR Foundation, is exploring the intersection between faith and development. Visit the Focus on: Faith and Development page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of GHR Foundation.

About the author

  • Anthony Langat

    Anthony Langat is a Kenya-based Devex Contributing Reporter whose work centers on environment, climate change, health, and security. He was part of an International Consortium of Investigative Journalism’s multi-award winning 2015 investigation which unearthed the World Bank’s complacence in the evictions of indigenous people across the world. He has five years’ experience in development and investigative reporting and has been published by Al Jazeera, Mongabay, Us News & World Report, Equal Times, News Deeply, Thomson Reuters Foundation, and Devex among others.