Kenya: Birds, Insects and Drought Make Kenya's Food Situation Bleak

Locusts can devastate crops and pastures.
19 January 2020

Kenya stares at a food shortage crisis this year following changing rainfall patterns and the invasion of quelea birds, maize diseases and, now, desert locusts.

Already, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) has warned that Kenya is likely to suffer worsening food shortages.

In April, the World Bank cut Kenya's economic growth forecast to 5.7 per cent citing the rain failure.

Apart from the failure of the long rain season that falls between March to May, resulting in crop failure in parts of Kenya's food basket, the invasion of quelea birds on wheat farms between July and September last year drastically reduced harvest volumes in the country.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which is funded by the United States Agency for International Development, attributed the failure of Kenya's long rains to tropical cyclone Idai, which redirected moisture away from the region.

"In high and medium potential agricultural areas in unimodal western Kenya, the development of maize crops has been negatively impacted by a late start to the rains, especially in parts of western Kenya and the Rift Valley.

Although the rains were timely in the Lake Victoria region, the rains were 20-30 days late across the Rift Valley, resulting in crop moisture stress across the entire region and necessitating replanting in some counties," the network said.


In the North Rift Valley, the agency said, many large-scale farmers opted to plant wheat instead of replanting maize, while most small-scale farmers opted to replant fast-maturing maize.

"Despite replanting by many farmers, the area planted is estimated to be 25 per cent below the five-year average. Reports of fall armyworm (FAW) were prevalent in April, though increased rainfall since early May helped control the pest and many crops are recovering," it added.

The Kenya Agriculture Livestock and Research Organisation (Kalro) had in May raised the alarm over the invasion of maize fields by the fall army worms.

The armyworms cut maize production by nearly five million bags in 2017, hurting farmers' earnings by as much as Sh15 billion.

In 2019, the same invasion was replicated in fields of Nandi, Kitale, Nakuru, Budalang'i, Kisumu and Eldoret. These are considered Kenya's food baskets.

The cycles of drought and floods and unpredictable weather patterns have been on for the past few years, leading to devastating food insecurity.

With greenhouse gases hitting a record high in 2018 with no hope of maintaining temperatures below two degrees Celsius, according to the United Nations Environment, the situation is expected to worsen the ravages of climate change.


And the anomalies in weather patterns are observable. Between March and May 2018, the country experienced above normal rainfall, leading to improvement in food security.

But in November 2018, thousands of Kenyans faced food starvation due to the delay of October-December rains, which were also poorly distributed in terms of space and time, ending up with a negative impact on crop production.

This is despite an earlier prediction from the weatherman that most parts of the country would experience enhanced rainfall towards the end of last year.

The National Drought Management Authority in January 2019 released a statement indicating that at least 23 counties were drought-stricken several weeks after the short rains had ended across the country.

Arid and Semi-Arid (Asal) areas were the most affected, experiencing a decline in food, water and pasture for weeks until the start of the 2019 long rains season in March.

In counties such as Kitui, Baringo, Laikipia and Nyeri, the delayed onset of the rains and the ensuing dry spells resulted in poor germination, which compelled farmers to replant.

Agriculture Chief Administrative Secretary Andrew Tuimur then disclosed that land under maize crop shrank from 2.2 million hectares in 2018 to 1.5 million hectares in 2019.

In July, Narok County and the national government spent Sh200 million fighting the quelea birds through aerial spraying of wheat fields with avicide.


The birds, which had initially invaded parts of Nyando, destroyed thousands of tonnes of wheat, millet and sorghum.

It is estimated that there are 5.5 billion quelea birds in Africa, and that flocks ranging from 1 million to 5 million can consume 50 tonnes of grain a day.

The State Department for Crops Development's Plant Protection Services in the Ministry of Agriculture reported that a quelea invasion had destroyed close to 60,000 hectares of wheat.

The red-billed quelea is a small weaver bird native to sub-Saharan Africa, and the most numerous bird species in the world.

The Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) profile of the bird, in its invasive species compendium, says the quelea is inherently nomadic, following rain fronts.

It is this migratory nature that sees it invade areas where it was previously absent.

The wheat was further affected by heavy rains that unexpectedly fell between October and November, when the grain was ready for harvest.

This, too, affected the production volumes as reported by the State Department for Crop Development & Agricultural Research.

The combination of factors ultimately led to the plummeting of food harvest last year, prompting the government to import about 10 million bags of maize from Tanzania.


The farmers only harvested 33 million bags in the 2019-20 season, compared to 44 million in 2018-19.

The harvest was a fraction of the 52 million bags the government had targeted.

Government Spokesman Cyrus Oguna had in October announced that 2.6 million people across Asal counties were in need of relief food.

"A total of 623,000 children and 69,000 pregnant and lactating mothers are at risk of as drought continues to ravage households.

"Turkana is the worst affected county with 250,000 children aged under five years in Turkana North, Turkana South and Laisamis sub-counties experiencing acute malnutrition," he said in a statement.

But the drought would soon turn into floods with the onset of the October-December short rains whose performance, according to Meteorological Department, indicated that all stations recorded above 125 per cent of usual Long Term Mean with the highest seasonal amount of 1415.3mm being recorded at the Meru meteorological station.

The rainfall led to severe storms and flooding in various parts of the country, culminating in loss of lives and destruction of property.

Land and mudslides were experienced in Murang'a, West Pokot, Taita Taveta, Makueni and Machakos counties.

There was loss of lives in West Pokot, Machakos, Wajir, Kisumu and Makueni counties while thousands of others were displaced.

Other impacts recorded by the weatherman are that farmers in cereal growing regions were unable to harvest their crops due to continuous rains and flooded fields.


Roads and bridges were washed away in some areas, thus disrupting transport systems.

Perishable goods went bad as they could not get to the market on time.

Then came the desert locusts, which have invaded several parts of Samburu, Marsabit, Isiolo and Meru counties to feed on vegetation.

The FAO has raised the alarm, saying that the invasion is the worst in 25 years and threatens pastures and crops on both sides of the Red Sea and could spread to Uganda and South Sudan.

"There remains a high risk that an additional swarm will arrive in the northeast from adjacent Ethiopia and Somalia," FAO said in its Desert Locusts bulletin.

Aerial spraying of the insects has proved futile, with the government raising alarm that they had become resistant to chemicals.

"Desert locusts damage a wide variety of wild and cultivated crops and consume about their own weight of fresh vegetation each day.

Half a million locusts each weighing two grammes will eat about one tonne of vegetation each day.

This amount is enough to feed about 2,500 people," the Desert Locusts Control Organisation for Eastern Africa (DLCO) says.

The locust plague will further push the country into depths of food insecurity.


Already, the drop in production by 11 million bags last season has seen millers flock to markets in the North Rift region, the country's food basket, in panic buying to stockpile the staple.

This has seen the maize prices rise to between Sh3,200 to Sh3,400 for a 90 kilo bag, up from Sh2,300 with some firms scaling down operations due to acute maize shortage.

The government has also been caught up in the "gold rush". Managers of the Strategic Food Reserve (SFR) on Monday last week admitted that they might not realise the target of buying four million bags of maize this season after farmers opted to sell the produce to millers who are offering as higher pay.

The Global Hunger Index ranks Kenya at position 77 out of 119 countries in the developing world on food security.

The annual report indicates that hunger in Kenya is still 'alarming' and one in every three Kenyans (14.5 million) suffer from chronic food insecurity and poor nutrition annually.

"Extreme poverty, poor governance coupled with climate change have resulted in growing numbers of people suffering from hunger," says the report published by Concern Worldwide.

Although the trend has improved over time, Kenya's hunger and undernutrition situation remains troubling due to extreme poverty, climate change and other natural disasters," it adds.

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