A child tries to fend off a swarm of desert locusts on a farm near the town of Nanyuki, in Kenya. Picture: Reuters/Baz Ratner
A child tries to fend off a swarm of desert locusts on a farm near the town of Nanyuki, in Kenya. Picture: Reuters/Baz Ratner

We are in a battle against time to curb the Covid-19 pandemic. While tackling the pandemic has grabbed global attention, a new crisis that could claim a lot more lives is brewing in Africa: huge locust invasions.

Billions of desert locusts are ravaging countries across East Africa, including Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, and Djibouti. It has been reported that their numbers are likely to increase by up to 400 times by June, reaching crisis levels.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has estimated that unless quickly controlled, 5-million additional people in East Africa will be hungry by June.

An unprecedented race against time has begun to urgently stop the progression and potentially devastating impact of the deadly twins — Covid-19 and the locusts — for millions in Africa.

When good rains also caused favourable breeding environments for locusts, the joy of rains suddenly turned hopes of expected plenty into the gloom of hunger. Is the best of times becoming the worst of times?

Food riots broke out a few days ago in Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya, as people trampled over each other, defying social distancing — prescribed to stem the spread of the Coronavirus — to get food

Locust breeding populations have increased enormously. The locust plague moves with devastating effects: imagine a carpet of locusts of up to 150-million locusts covering a square kilometre. They can consume crops in one day that can feed about 35,000 people. In East Africa, where the FAO estimates that about 20-million people are already food insecure, the effects will be devastating.

The locust crisis emerges as the continent is dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. These are tough odds to face.

Choices for millions of the poor are oddly similar: to stay in confinement and escape dying from the coronavirus or dying from hunger while staying at home.

It is already playing out. Food riots broke out a few days ago in Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya, as people trampled over each other, defying social distancing — prescribed to stem the spread of the coronavirus — to get food. The coronavirus kills, but hunger kills many more people.

Due to the lockdowns for the Covid-19 pandemic, pest control workers are largely unable to go out to spray. While restrictions have been lifted to allow spraying aircraft to operate, they can do little as they are largely unable to get access to the chemicals, due to disruption of supply chains.

It appears that those who survive Covid-19 will soon face Locust-19. In East Africa alone, the number of hungry people could jump to 30-million people.

There are several life-saving recommendations we can act on now. These include the following:

  • The creation of a “green channel” for the free flow of food and agricultural inputs and pesticides to control pest attacks.
  • Putting in place measures to prevent food price hikes by releasing food from government grain reserves and implementing anti-hoarding policies.
  • Rapidly scaling up food production technologies — including high-yielding, early-maturing, drought-tolerant, disease- and pest-resistant staple crops — and programmes such as the African Development Bank’s flagship Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation (Taat) initiative.

The bank has joined the FAO as the front-runners in this unprecedented race against time. The bank has just approved a $1.5m grant to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) and the FAO to support efforts to spray against the locusts and safeguard livelihoods in the East and the Horn of Africa. More help will be needed.

The last thing Africa needs now, as we are battling with the Covid-19 pandemic, is a hunger pandemic.

Covid-19 has taken the international community on an unpredictable journey. Thankfully, we can halt the locust crisis. For that to happen, we all must rally around the FAO to provide the $153m needed.

Covid-19 cannot be followed by Locust-19.

• Adesina is president of the African Development Bank. He is a former minister of agriculture of Nigeria. He was awarded the World Food Prize in 2017.