EDITORIAL: Minagri should strengthen our preparedness against pests

A major operation against a crop-ravaging pest, known as fall armyworm, is underway across the country, with the Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF) having joined the battle last week.

RDF is helping to airlift pesticides to the affected places across the country and working with local authorities, technical teams and residents to spray thousands of hectares of fields.

It may be too soon to determine the scale of the destruction caused by the caterpillars but thousands of households are expected to suffer heavy losses.

The armyworm attacks cereals especially maize, sorghum, rice and wheat.

Announcing the military’s intervention, officials at the Ministry of Defence said the pest constituted a major threat to the country’s food security.

It had, several months earlier, caused havoc in several countries in the southern and eastern parts of the continent, and it should therefore not have come as a complete surprise when it invaded Rwandan crops.

Rwanda is still largely an agriculture-based economy, with at least 70 per cent of the population deriving their livelihoods from the sector.

Across the developing world, agriculture is a sector under siege. The ever worsening effects of climate change, coupled with traditional challenges that continue to afflict the sector such as technical know-how gap, limited financing and difficulty in accessing fertilizers and high quality seeds, mean that farmers are faced with a make-or-break situation.

As such, smallholder farmers need maximum support through a comprehensive extension programme. Farmers need constant education on how to deal with challenges to maximise output and ensure sustainable agriculture.

It is the responsibility of the officials to constantly scan the environment to detect any possible threats to the sector. An outbreak of the fall armyworm, or any other pest for that matter, elsewhere in the region, should prompt focused action toward sufficient readiness to deal with the threat in the event it attacks.

As it appears, that was not the case with the armyworm outbreak. We had time to prepare for the invasion and take appropriate measures. We did not. For weeks, if not months, the pest ravaged crops across the country without a concerted effort to stop it. It’s not that we lacked the pesticide (locally produced pyrethrum EWC+ is being used to fight the caterpillars and has proved to be effective), but rather an early warning system and responsive coordination.

The harm has already taken place. We can only try to limit the damage. Kudos to the Rwanda Defence Forces and the Rwanda National Police, who have taken this seriously and have since swung into action to thwart it.

We need to pick a lesson or two from the armyworm experience: Next time such outbreaks must not catch us unaware. The Ministry of Agriculture (Minagri) should do everything possible to ensure we are always prepared to keep such threats at bay or respond in a timely manner in case of an outbreak.