FAO to hold emergency meeting to combat ‘armyworm’

The pest becomes the latest amid a long list of deterrents and setbacks that could suppress investor demand in the region.

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations has scheduled an Emergency Regional Meeting in Zimbabwe for mid-February, in part to address the fall armyworm outbreak occurring in southern Africa.

As if the record drought plaguing south Africa — as well as the horn of Africa — and wheat rust outbreaks weren’t enough, the FAO warned in a statement that the worm’s debut appearance in Africa could dampen prospects for anticipated “good crop harvests” this farming season.

“The pest is known to cause extensive crop losses of up to 73 percent depending on existing conditions and is difficult to control with a single type of pesticide, especially when it has reached an advanced larval development stage,” the FAO said.

The fall armyworm, native to North and South America and named for its ability to “march” rapidly through crops, has a penchant for the essential staple food crop in large parts of Africa: corn. The worm destroys young plants, attacking growing points and burrowing into cobs.

Scientists with CABI have positively identified the presence of the pest in Zimbabwe as well as the its “possible presence” in Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia, pending test results.

CABI chief scientist Dr. Matthew Cock said the it is is spreading “very rapidly outside the Americas” and that it likely traveled to Africa “as adults or egg masses” on direct commercial flights.

“Urgent action will be needed to prevent devastating losses to crops and farmers’ livelihoods,” he said in a statement. “CABI will support national extension services to help farmers identify the different species quickly and accurately, and conduct studies to work out the best way to control it — for example biological controls which reduce the need for insecticide.”

By some estimates, the number of private equity funds active in Africa has swelled from 12 in the 1990s to more than 200 today, while funds under management have risen from $1 billion to upwards of $30 billion. Agriculture, Africa’s largest economic driver, has been a main focus.

But critics have noted that investors have mainly purchased minority stakes in regional businesses and focused on a limited pool of larger, already profitable companies, despite efforts both from within and outside of the country to bolster small- to mid-sized businesses (the FAF being one recent example).

In addition to dampening harvests, the emergence of the fall armyworm, coupled with drought and other setbacks, could stymie investor demand. In one sign that investor interest may be waning, Fairfax Financial Holdings, which will invest private and public equity as well as debt, is reportedly expected to raise about $500 million for its new African investment fund despite previously seeking as much as $1 billion.

The FAO meeting is being held in partnership with the Southern African Development Committee (SADC) and the International Red Locust Control Organization for Central and Southern Africa (IRLCO-CSA), from February 14-16 in Harare, Zimbabwe. Attendees will discuss surveillance, preparedness and coordinated emergency responses to crop pests and livestock diseases.