New biocontrol product billed to cut fall armyworm losses

Farmers in the grain basket regions of Kenya could substantially cut the losses caused by the voracious fall armyworm on maize fields.

Maize farmers can now use a new product that confuses male army worms so that they are unable to mate with the females, thereby scuttling their reproduction. The biocontrol product, now registered by the Pest Control Products Board, follows the completion of efficacy trials in the country, setting the stage for its deployment.

The PherogenSpofr dispenser is manufactured by Provivi, a US-based agri-tech company.

The new product will provide an alternative to the use of pesticides for smallholder farmers to manage fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda).

Armyworms are estimated to cause annual production losses of about Ksh18 billion in Kenya, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

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The pheromone-based pest control technology interferes with the reproductive cycle of fall armyworm. It is applied using dispensers installed in the field to release a pheromone cloud that incapacitates males from locating the females, effectively disrupting the reproduction cycle.

When this method is used over a wide area, the reduced mating subdues fall armyworm population within without killing the target insect or harming other organisms.

When used for several seasons, the effect of decreased pest population will be amplified and further reduce risk of damage.

A recent survey by the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) shows that pesticide application is the most common management method employed by farmers in controlling the pest, as they are perceived to be fast acting and are readily available.

During the 2019 and 2020 maize seasons, CABI partnered with Provivi to demonstrate to smallholder farmers the deployment of the biopesticide using an area-wide approach.

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This included the integration of mating disruption with existing pest control methods amongst 309 farmers in Baringo, Machakos and Bungoma counties, all of which proved successful.

During the same period, CABI conducted a survey to understand farmers’ perceptions with respect to mating disruption technology after observing how it works. Accordingly, Pherogenwas demonstrated as an effective and safe method in controlling fall armyworm.

Farmers indicated that they significantly reduced pesticide purchases and accompanying labour costs.

Patricia Ledaa, a farmer in Baringo County said, “We saw changes when we applied Pherogen, because the cost of applying pesticides reduced. I applied chemicals to my field and hired a man to do it for me. Despite me fetching water for him (to mix pesticides) and buying the chemical, I still had to pay him for spraying. You cannot compare me with a male farmer, who will save on costs by doing everything by himself.”

Additionally, the mating disrupting technology was shown to reduce pest infestation and severity of fall armyworm, following scouting by extension workers and farmers on fields where area-wide management of activities was conducted.

Dr Ivan Rwomushana, an invasive species management scientist said, “with Pherogen duly registered, CABI will work together with Provivi in expanding the scale of reach to smallholder farmers in the country, raising awareness of the product and mobilizing farmers, to ensure the technology is implemented on a large-scale for optimum impact.”

The area-wide application of the pheromone is crucial in realizing change, as individual farm efforts only suppress a portion of the pest population, said Dr Samuel Muchemi, director, field development at Provivi.

Mr Pedro Coelho, CEO Provivi, noted, “A core mission of Provivi is to ensure the availability of our products to smallholder farmers, who stand to benefit the most.”

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