There is so much that we can learn from the recent locus crisis on how farming communities and pastoralists responded, the innovative approaches that communities took to protect their land and livelihoods, and the innovative technologies that emerged with the potential to empower communities to stay informed and engage in the response. As part of Project Locust, we brought together collaborators and friends who are on the frontlines of the locust crisis to seek ideas and feedback on new and innovative approaches for beating the locust, and how we can move forward from here to ensure we don’t lose momentum and continue to build climate resilience among communities most at risk. Three critical points emerged from the discussion. The central theme and key take away – To prepare for tomorrow, we must (and can!) act NOW.
The locust problem is not going away and it is not unique. Now is the time to double down on inclusive climate action solutions that empower those most in need.
“Although desert locusts have been here since biblical times, recent intense outbreaks can be linked to anthropogenic climate change and the increased frequency of extreme weather events” Nature Magazine
Once a one in seventy year problem for Kenya, this infestation is still ongoing in the region. As one senior locust responder in Kenya shared with us: “I am not sounding the alarm but I can tell you… we’ve never lowered our guard. We still have swarms in Ethiopia.. We still have some swarms in Somalia [and] when the southerly winds will start blowing, I cannot tell you for sure that we will not see more in Kenya in November”.
Desert locusts are just one of several migratory pests on the global watch list. Several other types of locust are emerging as a prominent risks in Kenya, Africa, the world; the fall armyworm has spread rapidly across Africa since it first appeared on the continent in 2016; it’s now been reported in 44 countries, with 80 different types of crops affected; Grasshoppers are currently (Summer 2021) swarming pastures in the Canadian heat, causing harvest losses for ranchers.
While the accelerated presence and destructive behaviour of these bugs can be attributed to changing weather patterns, the solution and action also lies in the weather. As Hamisi Williams, Assistant Country Representative Kenya at United Nations FAO said: “Desert Locust infestations are a weather issue: they come with weather and also go by weather”. With knowledge of weather conditions in a time frame, and at a resolution, that enables action, we can start to shift from reactive response to proactive action. We can equip the farmers directly with the knowledge and tools to not just take practical guidance on what to do, but also to turn crisis into opportunity.
We have learnt so much from this crisis. Now is the time to seek partnerships that will allow for us to scale inclusively and sustainability.
“We now have the opportunity to be proactive. If we are able to know when [the locusts] are coming, we are able to plan adequately.” Government Official, Kenya
Up to now we have been in firefighting mode – doing the best we can with resources available; But during the crisis, new and innovative approaches also emerged that could be utilized and scaled to reduce costs, improve our response to future crises, and enable more sustainable implementation by leveraging established and sustained business models (non profit, for profit and governmental); From The Bug Picture’s innovative proof of concept of harvesting and upcycling locusts in essential agricultural inputs for use by farmers on their farms (4.3 tons of locusts harvested by 180 farmers with an average of 20kg of locusts per farmer per night), to Mercy Corp AgriFin’s citizen science activities with partners such as Turn.io, iShamba and Plant Village, to more direct spraying methods with drones and bio-pesticides such as that trialed by Alta Drones, And then of course there is the weather and locust and weather modelling advances of Tomorrow.io, UN FAO and NOAA; and the underlying digital content and infrastructure that Kalro is establishing to reach farmers, along with NGOs such as Digital Green and farmer-facing businesses such as Kenarava Ltd, alongside the rich ecosystem of entrepreneurs flourishing across Africa.
The key is to take advantage of the time we have now, while we are not in firefighting mode, to form new partnerships. There is a lull in the desert locust infestation at the moment but they have not gone away. We can use this time to come together, reflect, learn from our collective experiences, and augment solutions that utilize each of our unique capabilities to ensure high quality solutions that are sustainable, inclusive and ensure local resilience for the next likely infestation, whether locusts or a different pest. No one organization can ensure inclusive climate action but if we come together, we can build novel solutions together and reduce the risk and damage of pests such as the locust or ensure farmers and pastoralists are empowered to protect their livelihoods.
We must and can move towards lower resource nature-based approaches. Now is the time to leverage what we have learnt through the recent crisis paired with new innovations to get there.
“The control of the desert locust is an expensive affair [today] and that’s something that people need to know.” Locust Control Representative, Kenya
The two main approaches for desert locust control to date have been spraying (to slow the spread of swarms) and aid (to help people after they have been impacted by the locust). As of March 2021, an estimated $74.9M has been paid out to affected households in locust emergency relief and 4.35M acres (1.76M hectares) has been sprayed with pesticides at the cost of $118M (NatGeo). While these centralized monitoring and control efforts have been important and seen as the only way forward up to now, there is a growing consensus that with better data, tools and community engagement, we can start to complement these traditional resource intensive methods with more proactive community based approaches, and not only address the crisis but turn crisis into opportunity for farmers and pastoralists.
For example, as Laura Stanford who led a community-based program during the 2020 crisis in Kenya, shared with us:
“During the course of last year (2020), we saw the level of devastation that was experienced by individuals on farm level, and the magnitude of livelihoods lost because people were not given the tools to be part of the response against the desert locusts. We saw this as an opportunity to use these people as an army against the desert locusts infestation, teaching them to see the swarms flying overhead as a mass of protein to be harvested and turned into an opportunity for farmers.” Laura Stanford, Founder of The Bug Picture, Kenya
Together, We Can Beat the Desert Locust
We are a multi-stakeholder group, including: TomorrowNow.org, Kenarava Group Ltd, Digital Green, The Bug Picture, Tomorrow.io and ICARDA who are working together to build a climate action system aimed at delivering community-based, localized insights that will provide millions of farmers with the ability to be better prepared, make crop-saving decisions and directly benefit from desert locust infestations.
We’re also continuing to build partnerships across Kenya, the region and around the world to make this vision a reality and welcome others who share our purpose and can contribute to the locust crisis to get in touch. Our approach is not to reinvent the wheel, but to identify and leverage climate action capabilities locally and globally that are already effective and being invested in, and then come together around the locust use case to make sure that farmers everywhere can be prepared, benefit from and contribute to its response,for the next climate crisis.
We are leveraging:
- TomorrowNow.org’s convening power.
- The weather intelligence and SaaS tools of Tomorrow.io.
- Kenarava’s farmer-first on the ground experience with smallholder farmers.
- Digital Green’s farmer-first multi-channel digital extension approach.
- The Bug Picture’s substantial learnings of on-farm control of desert locusts.
Project Locust won the Inspire Prize 2020 by CGIAR Platform for Big Data, is supported by ICARDA and also funded by JDC Grid.
Want to Learn More?
We are just getting started, and there are plenty of ways to learn more and get involved.
- Follow us on Twitter using the hashtag: #WeathertheSwarm
- Here you can find a Project Summary that captures the key elements of the project
- Check out our blog page with Frequently Asked Questions which we are updating as we go to address top of mind questions from the community
- You can also find updates and information about previous and upcoming activities on our Project Locust webpage