Harnessing the power of technology to detect and control desert locust outbreaks in Eritrea

FAO helps fight desert locust outbreaks by providing real-time detection tools. 

Key facts

Eritrea is one of the East African countries where desert locusts are a common threat, with almost annual outbreaks leaving the country vulnerable to food insecurity. As a result, the Ministry of Agriculture partnered with FAO and other regional organizations to fight these outbreaks and secure food production and nutrition for farming communities. While controlling locust movements may not be possible, the project is harnessing the power of data science to detect the fluctuations and trajectory of locusts and trigger early response warnings. FAO, through its Desert Locust Information Service, has been monitoring and forecasting possible threats to food production and to this respect implemented in Eritrea the eLocust3 system. The tool allows national locust officers to record field observations made during survey and control operations and transmit the data to the National Locust Centre in real-time via satellite. This data is the foundation of FAO’s global early warning system. Ministry staff were also trained to use the system to forecast, monitor and evaluate locust movements.

The desert locust, a pest similar to a grasshopper, breeds in the deserts of North Africa and the Near East. Under optimal weather and ecological conditions such as good rains, warm temperatures and green vegetation, they can increase rapidly in numbers and form enormous swarms that can devastate a farmer’s field in a matter of hours.

Because Eritrea is strategically positioned at the gateway to the Horn of Africa, a shared commitment to fighting locust outbreaks has been reached by countries in the region. The Government of Eritrea has prioritized pest control and moved to preventive measures working closely with FAO.

The implementation of eLocust3 is assisting the government to assess the movement and breeding of locusts as part of early warning mechanisms in regions throughout the country. The system uses a small antenna on the vehicle roof to connect to a satellite so that data collected in the field can be transmitted rapidly to the Desert Locust Unit based at the Ministry of Agriculture in Asmara. The data consists of detailed information about the habitat, ecology, weather, locusts, control and safety measures.

A recent locust survey confirmed that in January 2016, the number of desert locusts along the 1 200 km Red Sea coastline was at normal levels. Tedros Sium, head of the Desert Locust Unit in the Ministry of Agriculture, said the survey was conducted on the coastal plains between Karora in the north to the port city of Massawa.

"Our survey teams made a total of 416 stops and based on the data we collected and analysed, there are no impeding threats of locust outbreaks.” He added that only low-density copulating solitary adults and isolated maturing solitary adults were detected around the northern town of Mehimet. For this survey, three eLocust3 devices were used to collect and transmit the data.

Sium further reiterated that the successful use of the eLocust3 devices for data collection is the result of training and technical support from FAO. The monthly costs of using eLocust3 are covered by the FAO Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in the Central Region (CRC). “The device provides a cost-effective mechanism that complements traditional data collection and surveillance methods,”he added.

Keith Cressman, Senior Agricultural Officer at FAO, commended the effective management and use of the eLocust3 tool in Eritrea and encouraged other countries in the region to follow suit:  “Of the 416 data recorded on the devices, there was not a single error,” said Cressman.

In 2014, FAO provided 14 eLocust3 devices and initiated a comprehensive and sustainable training programme to create national master trainers. National field staff were also trained on various aspects of monitoring desert locusts to improve their traditional surveys, reporting and information exchanges by FAO/CRC.

The desert locust breeding season in Eritrea lasts from June to September along the western border, while the winter breeding season lasts from October to March on the Red Sea coastal plains in the East. The implementation of the early warning system is a tremendous achievement in the fight against locust plagues not only for Eritrea but also for the region.  

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