TOMBEL, Cameroon (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Joan Makia, 45, a farmer in Tombel, a town in Cameroon’s Southwest Region, stares out at her 20-hectare maize farm, unable to hide her fear.
“This is big trouble,” she said, shaking her head.
The cause of her woes is a pest called fall armyworm, which is native to the Americas, but which is now present in all but 10 African countries.
Over the past two years it has infested millions of hectares of cereal crops in Africa, and threatens the food supply and income of more than 300 million people, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in March.
On Thursday, the FAO warned that the pest is “increasingly growing an appetite for sorghum and millet, in addition to maize”, and could spread to northern Africa, southern Europe and the Middle East.
Many of those affected are small-scale farmers like Makia. Although extreme weather has hurt her crops in recent years, this is the first time in two decades she has faced ruin.
“Why all this ill luck, for heaven’s sake? This means little or no income, and poverty for me and my family,” Makia said.
Fall armyworm has damaged about 80,000 hectares of farmland in Cameroon, slashing harvests of the country’s staple cereal crops by as much as three-quarters in some regions, the government said.
That means hunger and economic hardship for the 12 million people that rely on the harvests - not just farmers, but businesses, from poultry growers to pig farmers to local brewers.
The agriculture ministry said the pest had proved harder to eradicate than its African variety, and said the impact had been felt across the region.
“The damage has been rapid, affecting both farmers and business operators,” Louisette Clemence Bamzok, head of agriculture development at the agriculture ministry, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
And some experts fear weather conditions, including strong winds that help the fall armyworm moth travel greater distances, could cause further problems.
“With climate threats, the spread of the pest could intensify,” said Zachee Nzoungandembou, executive director of the Centre for Environment and Rural Transformation, a non-profit in Limbe, a town on the country’s west coast.
REVERSAL OF FORTUNE
In recent years, Cameroon enjoyed a steady rise in maize production: from 1.9 million tons in 2014 to around 2.16 million tons in 2016, the agriculture ministry said.
That brought hopes of a better future for farmers and businesses reliant on cereals - people like 55-year-old Leon Tapngou, who farms poultry in the capital Yaounde, and who described the pest’s spread as abnormal.
“I have never seen this in my 35 farming years. I hope our gods are not angry,” he said.
The country’s production of cereals such as maize, sorghum and millet likely dropped to below average last year, the FAO’s 2018 report said, in part due to climate and security issues.
At the same time, the price of maize has climbed 38 percent since last year, state media quoted the agriculture minister as saying in May.
That means lower profits for farmers like Tapngou - even though the price he can get for a chicken has risen by a quarter to 1,500 CFA francs ($2.56) per kilogram.
That is because, when poultry and other livestock prices increase, consumers typically switch to other meat options such as fish, said Francois Djonou, who heads the Cameroon Association of Poultry Farmers.
Maize supplies about 45 percent of the feed for poultry, pigs and other farm livestock, said Bernard Njonga, who heads a farming-focused non-profit called the Association of Citizens for the Defence of Collective Interests, known by its French acronym ACDIC.
Higher feed prices mean the poultry industry will likely struggle in coming months, said Njonga, an agronomist and politician who is running for the country’s presidency in elections scheduled for October.
Livestock farmer Edward Kum, who raises pigs in Yaounde, is spending 50,000 CFA francs monthly on feed, up about half from 2016.
“This means a higher production cost and lower profit margin by the time the pigs are mature for sale,” he said.
The government said a shortage of feed could see pig production drop by a fifth by the peak year-end festive period.
“We are advising livestock farmers to diversify income sources so another maize destruction crisis or extreme weather event doesn’t put them out of business,” said Bamzok from the agriculture ministry.
Local brewers - for whom maize is a key ingredient - have also been hit with price hikes to produce the maize-brewed beer known as ‘billy-billy’ in the north and ‘kwacha’ in the south.
Vendors in local markets in Yaounde said kwacha now sells for 150 CFA francs ($0.26) per litre, a 50 percent rise from before the fall armyworm crisis.
“We have to increase the price, because that of maize has also increased,” said Adeline Ngum, a kwacha brewer and vendor in Yaounde’s Mokolo market.
Price rises have not affected the country’s main brewer, France’s Les Brasseries du Cameroun, a company official said, as it sources most of its maize from abroad.
With market prices for maize rising steeply - from about 1,100 CFA francs in 2016 for a five-litre bucket, to nearly 2,000 CFA francs today - some fear unrest.
A spike in food prices in 2008 led to riots, during which 100 people were killed by the country’s security forces.
“The situation is serious, and we fear a repeat of another hunger riot should government not act fast,” said Njonga, of citizen’s group ACDIC.
Meanwhile, action to combat fall armyworm using pesticides has not worked, the agriculture ministry’s Bamzok said.
“We are working with the (state’s) Institute of Agricultural Research for Development to find a lasting solution,” she said.
In March, Deputy Agriculture Minister Clementine Ananga Messina announced a new approach using different pesticides, and appealed for private and international partners to provide money and help.
The government hopes the program, which will run for 18 months, will deal with fall armyworm.
The FAO recommends using bio-pesticides, derived from natural materials such as animals, plants and bacteria, and warns that fall armyworm cannot be eradicated.
“African farmers need to learn to manage it without jeopardizing their health and their environment,” the FAO said.
Njonga said the government’s plan has done little to quell farmers’ fears, adding that it needs to succeed.
“We want to see it implemented and get the results.”