By John Masaba
Scientists are working around the clock to identify a mysterious pest that has attacked several farming areas in central Uganda, leaving many farmers counting losses.
The infestation, which has been mostly reported in 12 villages in Luwero district, was first reported among mango farmers in Kiteme parish, Bamunanika sub-county about two weeks ago.
The pest then spread to other crops such as coffee and sweet potatoes, prompting fear of famine.
The red, white and yellow striped pests are said to have started with devouring mango flowers. With time, they switched to attacking mango leaves and other crops. This could affect yields for the ongoing second planting season.
“I am not sure if we shall make any harvests this season,” Godfrey Sseguya, the LCI chairperson of Kasolo-Kitobola village in Bamunanika sub-county, Luwero district, said.
Sseguya, for whom mangoes are a cash cow, said he may have lost five acres of his orchard.
“It is from mangoes that we get money to pay school fees for our children, but I also have loans. I don’t know what I am going to do,” he said.
Sseguya said besides mangoes, the caterpillars also attacked his matooke and coffee plantations. Residents said when one touches the pest, it gives off a liquid that causes a burning sensation on the skin.
Sseguya said they multiply fast and some residents have temporarily fled their homes in his village because they are entering the houses. “We urge the Government to come to our rescue before these creatures finish us,” he said.
Luwero is one of Uganda’s food baskets, producing fruits such as pineapple and mangoes. Many of these are a common fixture on the stands in major markets in the capital.
Some of the harvest is exported to South Sudan and Rwanda because of their unique taste.
Alex Lwakuba, the commissioner for the crop production department at the agriculture ministry, said: “Our teams have taken samples for our entomologists to analyse them in the laboratory for appropriate action. Identification is ongoing in the laboratory. In the meantime, the agriculture ministry has delivered 150l of cypermethrin (a synthetic pyrethroid insecticide) to control the pest.”
By Friday, however, the situation remained critical in affected areas, with farmers saying they had lost most of their crop. However, Fred Masagazi, the former Malungu LC1 chairperson, said the pesticide they received from the subcounty was insufficient.
“My village received only one litre of the chemical. Each resident got about 100ml, which is not enough for one mango tree. People are very worried. Some are trying to burn them but this is not helping,” he said.
Jeremy Kamoga, another resident, said the problem follows a pronged dry spell in the area, which led to crop failure.
“We think that if we had a good harvest last season, the situation would be different,” Kamoga, who has been farming mangoes for the last 20 years, said.
Explaining the genesis of the problem, Pascal Kimuli, a farmer in Bamunanika, said the pest first emerged as butterflies perching on mango trees.
He said when they sought advice from experts, they were told not to worry and instead be happy about their occurrence because butterflies are pollination agents. More pollination means increased yields of fruit.
“However, when we had one heavy shower of rain, we were shocked to wake up to tonnes of worms. They were all over [the gardens] eating up everything. Those who did not check their farms in time have lost everything,” Kimuli said.
“They love eating flowers. After finishing the flowers, they descend on the leaves and anything green,” he added.
Kimuli said they were expecting a good harvest in the season starting October, but are now less optimistic.
“We are going to struggle. We are not going to have anything this year,” he said.
Apollo Ssentumbwe, another farmer, said they need pesticides quickly before the pests eat up other crops, which could expose the areas to famine.
“If we had drugs, this problem would be over in a matter of days,” he said.
Ssentumbwe said although cypermethrin has proved effective, it is expensive and out of reach for many farmers after the price of a litre increased from about sh20,000 last year to about sh30,000.
James Sseremba, a resident, urged the Government to get better spraying equipment, preferably that which can do aerial administration of pesticides.
He said the backheld spray pumps that most farmers use are not effective, especially on mango trees.
“To be able to do something, somebody has to climb the tree with it, which is not easy. We could defeat the caterpillars, but they eat a lot. By the time you finish spraying the garden, you find they have already finished your crop,” Sseremba said Central Uganda is not a stranger to occasional pest attacks.
In 2001, millions of caterpillars invaded the region and decimated acres of farmlands and several areas in Mukono, Mubende, Mpigi and Wakiso districts. Also, in 2018, other worms were reported in Bamunanika, Zirobwe, Kalagala and Kikyusa sub-counties, among others.
Then, the worms were reported feeding on the plant tip (terminal bud), killing the entire crop and destroying acres a day.
Earlier in 2017, there had been an attack on Luwero farms, especially in Nyimbwa, Luwero, Makulubita, Kikyusa and Butuntumula sub-counties.
However, Sseguya said this is the first time mangoes have been attacked by caterpillars to such a magnitude. Like diseases, many crop pests are favoured by warming trends, erratic precipitation (rain), and increased levels of carbon dioxide brought about by climate change, according to a recent paper published by Colorado State University in the US.
This can make disease and pest management increasingly challenging, affecting both crop production and productivity.
Worst affected areas
Some of the hardest-hit villages include Kasolo-Kitobola, Kasolo-Buddu, Buweke, Malungu, Butalyamisana, Kikonda, Kakoola, Nalongo, Sekamuli, Nalweweta and Kiteme in Bamunanika sub-county, Luwero district.
The Buweke village LC1 chairperson, Fred Kanoonya, said the district authorities on Monday distributed bottles of dudu cyper, an insecticide used in fighting pests.
However, Kanoonya said the doses were not enough to go around since almost all homesteads had been affected.
Additional reporting Fredrick Kiwanuka