A close look at the armyworm destroying a young maize plant.

“We won’t harvest anything”: climate related pest wreaks havoc on Uganda’s crops

Climate experts are attributing the invasions of pests to the changing patterns in rain and temperature. Most pests are running towards the areas with cooler breeding areas, especially in East Africa.
Climate experts are attributing the invasions of pests to the changing patterns in rain and temperature. Most pests are running towards the areas with cooler breeding areas, especially in East Africa.

Standing in the middle of his maize garden, Alex Masiko — a farmer in western Uganda’s Kikuube District— visibly appears to be hopeless and fearful over what will happen to his family of ten.

His garden which had started flourishing promisingly is under attack by the strange crop-eating insects called African Army-worm (Spodoptera exempta), which invaded quickly.

‘‘I planted my maize in March and it germinated very well. As I prepared to spray and kill weeds with herbicides, strange black pests invaded the whole garden field and ate everything,’’ Masiko says.

In western Uganda, district of Kikuube, local farmers are facing uncertainty as the strange pest devours their crops. The invasive worms expanded their traditional distribution thanks to warmer climate conditions, experts say.

Masiko’s only way to save the remaining gardens was to use Cypermethrin 5EC pesticide, which has been recommended by the agriculture ministry. However, Masiko explains the product is costly for him, as most of the damage to his crops is already done.

‘‘I don’t expect to harvest anything. I would have harvested over 25 bags, each of 100 Kgs. With the invasion of this pest, I feel demoralized. I feel fed up with farming,” he said.

Climate experts are attributing the invasions of pests to the changing patterns in rain and temperature. Most pests are running towards the areas with cooler breeding areas, especially in East Africa, they said. 

Dr Nicholas Mukisa, a climate change expert at the ministry of energy and mineral development of Uganda, said the pest invasion in Uganda has a direct link to climate change as the causing factor.

‘‘Temperature increase in (the worm’s) breeding areas is the main cause factor for their movements, in search for cooler breeding areas. So all these changes are caused by global warming and flooding of their breeding places,’’ Mukisa said.

The agriculture Minister, Frank Tumwebaze confirmed the outbreak and said that so far over 40 districts have reported invasion of the pest. The pest in particular targets cereals like maize and sorghum. Tumwebaze also said the outbreak was a result of climate change. 

The climate crisis is increasing the risk of pests in agriculture all over the world and especially in cooler regions, a 2021 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) highlighted. Cases like the African army-worm may become more frequent.

“A single, unusually warm winter may be enough to assist the establishment of invasive pests,” the FAO said in a press release.

Between 2020 and 2021, a massive upsurge of the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) —the world’s most destructive migratory pest— broke in Eastern Africa. At that time, favorable climatic conditions helped the pest spread, according to a FAO report.

An Irish potato grower looking at how the armyworms have destroyed his garden in Kikuube district of western Uganda.

Invaded farms

The armyworm pest has put many farmers and their families at risk of hunger in Uganda, according to local and national authorities.

Robert Behangana, another local farmer in Kikuube District, echoes the same story. His Irish potatoes garden was razed down by the army-worm bringing a total shadow of famine blanketing his family.

‘‘I planted Irish potatoes early but they all failed to germinate. The armyworms are also eating up the Irish even before they start birding. This is a sign of bad times for our children who are likely to fail to get what to eat,” Behangana says.

Like other affected victims Behangana describes the pest invasion as a strange calamity. ‘‘It is very dangerous and we had never experienced this in our lives as farmers,” he added. 

The farmer said there is an urgent need for technical assistance in the region, as most people had never interacted with the pest. 

Dr Banabas Ntume, the Kikuube district production officer, says the pest invasion has devastated the whole district and created fear of food insecurity in the near future. 

‘‘These pests are coming because of climate change. You realize that when we had the dry spell with little rain, the infestation was high but when it rained they died,” the officer said. 

According to Ntume, many farmers had to completely re-plant their crops after the pest invasion. “It’s a serious problem to food security in the whole district’’ Dr Ntume says.

Noting that the pest can be controlled by an insecticide named Cypermethrin 5EC, agriculture Minister Tumwebaze said the government is supporting affected districts with insecticides and water pumps.

“If the attack is on pasture, farmers are advised to withdraw from that paddock for seven days. Simply don’t graze on the pasture for seven days,’’ Tumwebaze said in a press statement.

The armyworms have affected 80 percent of the crops in districts like Kikuube, Luwero, Mukono, Wakiso, Katakwi, Bukedea, Bugweri, Serere, Busia, Bugiri, Mityana, Kiryandongo, and Namutumba.

The armyworms have destroyed food crops like maize, beans, sweet potatoes, cotton and other crops. They have also destroyed pastures for domestic animals. This has put thousands of farmers at risk of facing hunger, according to local authorities. 

According to the Uganda Agriculture survey 2018, local farmers are prone to shocks in farming and these include sudden losses in food and livestock production as a result of extreme weather conditions, such as drought, hailstorms and other extreme events.

Overall, 74% of the households that depend on agriculture have reported shocks in the last 10 years, according to official data. Among these, 82% reported a drought, 40% faced pests and diseases while floods affected 17%.

The government of Uganda has blamed the latest invasion of armyworms, deadly pests that are ravaging crops in rural communities on climate change.

One of the farmers in Kikuube district show how army worms have destroyed his garden.

Climate pest

The African armyworm is the caterpillar of the night-flying moth (Spodoptera exempta), and is a major crop pest usually found in East Africa. Now, climate change pushed them into new territory.

The caterpillars munch through cocoa, bananas and maize, and defecate in water supplies. They are considered an agricultural pest by the FAO.

Normally, they start with small numbers, usually on pastures. However, periodically the populations increase dramatically and mass migration of moths occur, covering many thousands of square kilometers and traversing international boundaries. They travel from field to field in great numbers, hence the name “armyworm”.

Outbreaks typically follow the onset of wet seasons, when dry grasslands produce new growth and cereal crops are planted. The severity of outbreaks is increased by extended droughts followed by early season rainstorms. In essence, an unstable climate is fertile ground for outbreaks.

In this case, the caterpillars moved away from their usual distribution, searching for cooler areas to breed, experts said. The worm is more common in areas which received heavy rains.

The State Minister for Animal Industry, Bright Rwamirama, while addressing the parliament in April, advised farmers to spray a pesticide called Cypermethrin 5EC to control the pest.

“The good news is that the pesticide works instantly and the chemical is biodegradable. If you leave it for three days then it will not have any effect on human beings and animals,” he said.   

According to him, the armyworm spread quickly because of windy and dry weather, as well as the delay of onset of rains. This favors their breeding cycle.

“We are praying that rains come soon because they disrupt the breeding cycle of the moth. It is only the caterpillar stage that is destructive, so when the rains come they will be washed away,” he said.

In case rains do not come, the minister said authorities will seek the Parliament’s support to “widen the intervention”.  

The Prime Minister, Robinah Nabbanja presented a statement to the Floor of Parliament on April 14, 2022, about the invasion of the African armyworm. He said the pest is causing massive destruction of crops and threatening the livelihoods of the people in affected districts.

How the armyworm decimates a young plant.

Uganda: prone to pests

According to the 2014 census, 69% of Ugandans depend on subsistence farming for livelihood. Now, extreme pests like this one put this population at risk.

In particular, the pest poses a food security threat, especially those in rural poor communities, according to Dr Ntume. 

There is growing fear of famine and malnutrition among children as a result of breakdown of food production chains because of the pests, added Dr Ntume.

Over 96% of farming households in Uganda depend on rain-fed agriculture, which is very sensitive to climate change.

In 2019–2020, the Horn of Africa was affected by what was described by FAO as the worst desert locust infestation in over 25 years. Desert locust swarms pose a severe threat to agriculture-based livelihoods, particularly in areas where food security is already fragile. 

The first swarm of locusts entered the Ugandan subregion of Karamoja –already the most food-insecure subregion in the country– on 9 February 2020. By September 2020, desert locusts had been sighted in over 20 districts in the Acholi, Elgon, Karamoja, Lango, and Teso subregions.

Uganda was forced to deploy the national forces (Uganda Peoples Defense Forces-UPDF) to battle the locusts in Karamoja sub region. The air forces sprayed pesticides in the affected districts around the country.

The country spent about US $5 Million on the operation. Uganda further borrowed about US $50 million from the World Bank to bolster the fight against the locusts.

An assessment carried out by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP) in Karamoja and Teso estimated 291,000 people had been left with severe food insecurity in Karamoja and Teso.

Now, the trauma resurges for small farmers like Masiko, who now face a harsh situation with the armyworm pest. Now, they all depend on whether rain falls on their soil.

If there’s no rain, farmers like him face famine and a reduced income. 

Masiko, on his part, says his hopes lie in relief aid, which he expects to get from the government and other non government organizations. Otherwise, he’ll have to face a grim future.

Alex Tumuhimbise
Alex holds a Bachelors degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Uganda Pentecostal University in Fort portal City. He also has a diploma in Journalism and has worked in radio, with online news agencies, and at the Daily Monitor for the past 10 years. His work has been featured in international news organizations, such as Earth Journalism Network, Floodlight-US, Mongabay News -US, and The Guardian. Alex has special interest in reporting on climate change reporting, extractive industries, and environmental governance. He’s an alum fellow of the African Center for Media Excellence, Thompson Reuters Foundation, and Earth Journalism Network and Internews.