FAO Regional Office for Africa

Digital solutions to help tackle Fall Armyworm in South Africa

A new app can help the fight against this formidable enemy

The Fall Armyworm destroys the plant before it can properly grow. Photo: ©FAO/Steven Lazaro

15 September 2020, Pretoria – A new app developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) helps South African farmers track the Fall Armyworm outbreak and access resources on how to combat it. 

The Fall Armyworm is a formidable enemy. They are nocturnal and complete their lifecycles within twenty-one days. They attack maize, wheat, and sorghum at all crop stages, entering the critical organs of the plant and preventing it from growing. The worm's impact is worsened by COVID-19 movement restrictions, as farmers cannot reach their fields to monitor and respond to the situation. With restrictions lifting throughout the country, only recently have farmers slowly been returning to survey the damage. 

"All we could see was that our maize could not make it past five leaf-stage, the other one which should have been at the tasseling stage (reaching its full growth) could not produce tassels. Upon close inspection, we noticed ragged holes on the new leaves, dirty saw dust-like materials (frass) in the whorl, then next thing the plant dies," said Dinnah Khumalo, an FAO Farmer Field School student. "At first we dismissed it as a bore worm or African Armyworm and quickly sprayed, a week later nothing changed, and eventually we lost the whole two hectares of maize," added Khumalo.  

Along with the FAMEWS app, FAO handed over Fall Armyworm monitoring tools to the Department of Agriculture Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) at a recent ceremony hosted by the Agricultural Research Council (ARC). This organization runs the Farmer Field School projects in Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces.

"As we prepare to go back to our fields, one cannot help but wonder as to how much damage the worm has done as it was unchecked for close to 6 months during the national lockdown," said Mercy Chikoko, FAO Representative a.i during the handover ceremony.

"The app can be used to upload real-time data for the attention of experts pertaining to current field invasions. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we will ensure that both sites have running water to be able to wash hands regularly and also rehydrate. These water tanks will enable rain harvesting and irrigation." Mercy concluded.

COVID-19 containment measures set back planned farmers' field classes by six months. They have now resumed, and the knowledge shared and materials distributed will be critical to the fight. In particular, the FAMEWS mobile app will be used to collect, record, and transmit data on the pest's presence, provide a chat function to share experiences, and a digital library with expert resources. FAMEWS can be downloaded for free from the Google Play Store.

Students, including Ms. Khumalo, are eager to learn ways to combat the Fall Armyworm. "I may not have gone through formal education, but when learning takes place in the field, it makes it easier for people like me to grasp the concepts and be able to easily apply it to my farming practice. What excites me most is the welcoming presence of the youth."

The learners will have the opportunity to use mobile phones for field scouting, recording pheromone trap catches and disrupting the mating cycle by using lures/kill strips to attract the Fall Armyworm.

2020 is the International Year of Plant Health (IYPH), an opportunity to raise global awareness on how promoting plant health can help end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment, and boost economic development.