Kenya is affected by the worst plague of locusts in 70 years. Since the first swarms of locusts landed in January 2020, the country has been living in a state of emergency.
Many countries around the Horn of Africa are currently affected by a severe locust plague. In Kenya it is the worst locust plague in 70 years. Eyewitnesses describe the swarms as clouds darkening the sky. Since the first swarms of locusts landed in Kenya in January 2020, the country has been in a state of emergency.
The impact on the population
The poorer people in the country are suffering the most from the plague. Most Kenyans make a living from livestock and agriculture, and the locusts have destroyed crops in many places, so hunger is increasing steadily. Often neither the people nor the livestock can be fed. As a result, many Kenyans have had to slaughter their livestock and thus sacrifice part of their livelihood. Rising food prices exacerbate the already threatening famine. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic is an additional burden: the locust plague can exacerbate the pandemic by causing malnutrition and making the immune system of those affected more vulnerable to the deadly virus.
But how did this serious locust plague come about?
Several factors have contributed to the fact that locusts have been able to reproduce to such an extent. Since Yemen and Oman were in the grip of civil war in 2018, the locust plague that started there could not be given the attention it required. In January of 2019, smaller swarms spread as far as Iran and Pakistan until they reached the Horn of Africa in June. The floods in many countries in the region contributed significantly to the plague last year. Locusts reproduce very well on wet soil, so the heavy rainfall in Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti has facilitated the fast growth of the swarms. The deserts became lush and green which attracted more and more locusts. Now ever larger swarms are threatening the region. Researchers agree that the plague is also made worse by the weather conditions caused by climate change.
What kind of locusts are they?
Many locust species are solitary, but there are over 30 species capable of forming swarms. The grasshopper species that are currently a particular threat to Kenya have a striking yellow colouration and eat almost anything green, even plants that are harmful to them. This makes them particularly dangerous for agriculture. They rest at night and migrate during the day. They are surprisingly fast: a swarm can cover up to 150km a day. A locust can consume its own body weight in food every day. Since a female can lay up to 240 eggs in her lifetime, they reproduce exponentially. This means that a swarm can grow twentyfold within three months. Even a small swarm of locusts can destroy the food for 35,000 people in a short time. But they do not only infest agricultural products, but also food stocks. Once a stockpile is infested, it has to be disposed. This year, Kenya has was attacked by a swarm that covered 2400 square kilometres.
Ways to combat the plague
The possibilities of dealing with a plague of locusts are limited. Once a swarm has formed, it is difficult to control and to destroy it. Pesticides can be used, but this can be problematic. The poison does not only kill the pests, but also beneficial insects. Furthermore, if agricultural land is contaminated, people might ingest the poison through their food. Many farmers fight the locust swarms with traps by digging ditches and burying the insects that fly or walk into them. The most sensible solution is to take timely preventive measures and have early warning systems. For example, lone locusts should be located and tracked in time in order to prevent swarming. It is also possible to find out where the locusts spawn, so that pesticides, can be applied in time. Since the locust plague affects many countries and is now spreading to Central Africa, a regional, trans-national agreement must be reached. Governments, authorities and international organisations must work together to contain the crisis and its consequences. Kenya's rural population is now even more dependent on international cooperation and donations because of the locust plague and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Successes and prospects
Over the past months, the plague has been contained using pesticides. In Kenya, 2.3 million tons of grain could be protected, covering the needs of about 15 million people for one year. But the plague is far from over: the heavy rains in Ethiopia and Sudan have resulted in more vegetation, which means that more food is available to the locusts. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) warns of a second, even stronger invasion by locust swarms.
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