Samburu men try to fend off a swarm of desert locusts flying over a grazing land in Lemasulani village, Samburu County, Kenya. Picture: REUTERS/NJERI MWANGI
Samburu men try to fend off a swarm of desert locusts flying over a grazing land in Lemasulani village, Samburu County, Kenya. Picture: REUTERS/NJERI MWANGI

SA and most of Southern Africa region could benefit from the locust outbreak that has devastated parts of East Africa.

In a market update on Monday, the Agriculture Business Chamber (Agbiz), an organisation that represents commercial farmers and agribusiness, said the outbreak is likely to lead to large maize shortfalls in East Africa, and the Southern African region is well placed to fill the shortage.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the situation in East Africa is extremely serious and an “unprecedented threat” to the food security and livelihoods of those in the Horn of Africa. An estimated $300m (about R5bn) is required to control the outbreak.

Locusts are part of a large group of insects commonly called grasshoppers. Swarms can travel between 5km and 130km or more in a day. A desert locust adult — the most devastating of all locust species — can consume about its own weight in fresh food a day — that is about 2g. A small part of an average swarm (or about a ton of locusts) eats the same amount of food in one day as about 10 elephants or 25 camels or 2,500 people, according to the FAO.

The Wall Street Journal previously reported that in Kenya, police facing the country’s largest outbreak in 70 years fired machine guns and teargas into swarms in an effort to prevent them from consuming fields. Ethiopia is spraying pesticide from small planes to displace hovering throngs, though swarms have forced passenger jets in the region to make emergency landings.

If the outbreak is not controlled and conditions remain favourable for breeding, it could reach 30 countries in Africa and Asia, the UN said.

Wandile Sihlobo, head of agribusiness research at Agbiz, pointed out that the outbreak comes at a challenging time when the financial resources to fight the spread of the locusts are limited as funds are diverted to fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

“Hence, there is the risk that if the spread is not controlled, the locusts could lay eggs which might lead to an even larger swarm of locusts in the next season, further negatively affecting the agricultural sector and livelihoods of those mainly dependent on the sector,” Sihlobo said.

He said for countries like Kenya, the locusts are in fact, affecting the sector in a year that staple grain conditions were not favourable. This raises the possibility that if there isn’t a strict control through applications of pesticides by spraying and other techniques, there could be reports of crop damages and increased import needs.

“Fortunately, this year, the Southern Africa region has large maize supplies which should help fill the shortage in Kenya and other African countries which could experience a maize shortfall. As we have previously pointed out, SA and Zambia could emerge as key maize suppliers to the Southern and East Africa region in the 2020/2021 marketing year. Both countries are expecting their second-largest maize harvests on record within the 2019/2020 production.”

Sihlobo said SA expects a harvest of 15.5-million tonnes, against domestic consumption of about 11-million tonnes. Zambia‘s 2019/2020 maize harvest is estimated at 3.4-million tonnes against domestic maize consumption of 2.2-million tonnes. This means SA could have at least 2.7-million tonnes of maize for export markets within the 2020/2021 season, which is up 89% year on year, while Zambia could have a million tonnes of maize for exports, up from 100,000 tonnes in the previous year.

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