At the stroke of midnight on 1st January, 2020 the world ushered in not only a new year but a new decade. As happens at this time of the year, people made their New Year resolutions, and the aura of hope and expectation saturated the atmosphere.

But no sooner had the dust of merry-making settled than the plague of the locust invasion rocked the country. The year seemed to have started off on the wrong footing.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) classifies the desert locust as one of the most dangerous of flying pests. The insects can travel about 90 miles a day, and eat their own body weight in crops. It is said that a swarm of locusts covering a little more than one-third of a square mile can eat the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people.

Photo credits: Ben Curtis

As the most serious desert locust outbreak seen in East Africa in 70 years, experts estimate that the locusts destroyed at least 30% of the pastureland they landed on in Kenya. According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a total of 4.9 million people were plunged into food insecurity as a result of the invasion.

Lawrence Mwagire recounts how the swarm of locusts devoured the cowpeas, green grams, maize, and khat, on his three-acre farm in Embu county of central Kenya. He lost approximately US$85 .5 of his initial investment, not to mention the lost earnings from the crops. Mwagire was not the only one counting his losses. Mr John Mutembei, a nearby farmer, said he lost all his sukumawiki (collard greens), and napier grass, to the locusts. The agripreneur estimates this painful loss as being in excess of US$20,000.

But this was just the beginning. The next shock for Kenyans was the onset of heavy rains and flash floods that accompanied heavy rains at the start of the planting season,, sweeping away homes and livelihoods in an instant.

Floods in Kisumu County, Kenya, April 2020. Photo credits: Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS)

The rains not only increased the risk of health emergencies, but provided conditions conducive for further breeding of desert locusts in Kenya. Coinciding with the travel and movement restrictions that were introduced to slow down the spread of Covid-19, efforts to combat the swarms of locusts that were ravaging crops were hampered as well. This situation drove the country from the proverbial frying pan into the fire.

Other repercussions associated with the unusually heavy rains included flooding and landslides, along with deaths, displacements. and the destruction of crops and property. According to the Kenya Red Cross Society, over 233,000 people in multiple locations across the country were negatively affected.

People move to safer grounds after a residential block was flooded following heavy rains at Mwariki Estate in Nakuru, Kenya, May 3, 2020. (Photo credits: Sheikh Maina)

Salvaging the Situation

In the face of the locust attacks, FAO is working with the Kenyan government,and teams from non-governmental organizations, to conduct massive aerial pesticide spraying campaigns in targeted counties.

Aerial spraying of desert locusts in Kipsing on the border of Isiolo and Laikipia counties. Photo credits: Waweru Wairimu | Nation Media Group Kenya

Secondly, Kenya’s budgetary allocations for the 2020/21 financial year have included funds towards overcoming the aforementioned natural calamities. To avert the unprecedented risk of food insecurity due to Covid-19, the government allocated approximately US$480 million to agriculture, and an additional $43 million to combat the spread of the desert locust.

Building for resilience

The triple tragedy has brought to the fore the indisputable need to make our food systems more resilient. This means investing in early warning systems to prevent and mitigate any shocks to the food system, and in the worst case scenario, an unprecedented global pandemic at the scale of Covid-19.

Though Kenya is not yet home and dry, these concerted efforts should help keep the country’s head above the water as the storm rages on.

Written by Amanda Namayi

This article is part of Covid-19 Food/Future, an initiative under TMG ThinkTank for Sustainability’s SEWOH Lab project (https://www.tmg-thinktank.com/sewoh-lab). It aims at providing a unique and direct insight into the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on national and local food systems. Also follow @CovidFoodFuture, our Video Diaries From Nairobi, and @TMG_think on Twitter. Funding for this initiative is provided by BMZ, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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