For owners of crop fields attacked by red locust in Nsanje, surviving the prevailing hunger just got tougher.
“They just came, landed on this field. Within five minutes, the swarm left stalks only,” explains Simon France, one of the affected farmers in Mpatsa Extension Planning Area.
His maize plot was the worst affected when swarms of locust that reportedly appeared like a lengthy dark cloud in the sky descended on Nyamula Irrigation Scheme.
A week after the devastating attack, France, his daughter and other irrigation farmers were still looking up to the sky, grappling to come to terms with the destruction of their knee-high maize crop amid a deepening food crisis estimated to worsen the livelihoods of seven in every 10 Malawians. Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (Mvac) rates Nsanje and Chikwawa as the most hit districts, estimating that nine in every 10 people will soon have nothing to eat.
During the visit shortly after 12 noon, scores were spotted in their fields, armed with tree branches and handfuls of sand to scare away the merciless swarm behind the annihilation. Some were seen removing the stalks and what was left. There was smoke here and there as cooking was underway.
No one looked ready to call it a day.
They have been on the alert since the migratory locusts, believed to have originated from Mozambique, hit the scheme last month.
They want to spot the locust before it lands to cause damage in the irrigation plots which supplements their food requirement as drought in the last rainy season drastically reduced their yield.
For them, rain-fed agriculture does not amount to much.
In January last year, floods swept away their crops-and France’s irrigation plot and upland field were damaged.
This year, the toil for food security got off to a worse start as prolonged dry spells crop ruined his crop.
“In good times, the irrigation plot just compliments what I harvest from the main garden. This year, it was my last hope. I am helpless now,” he laments.
In his household, hunger is not imminent.
It is already hitting hard.
During the visit, they were already subsisting on fresh maize bought from a neighbour’s field in the scheme.
Unfortunately, France is not the only farmer living hand-to-mouth.
So are the majority of almost smallholder farmers whose tender crops were were chewed up by the swarm said to be almost two kilometres (km) long.
The locusts, with covers up to 500km a day, have damaged almost 30 hectares of maize, says Shire Valley Agriculture Development Division (Svadd) principal crop officer Ringstone Taibu.
The green hoppers with steely mandibles wiped out crops in eight irrigation schemes, including Nyamula, Nyapililu, Ntolongo, Saikira, Chazuka and Tengani.
The farmers on the guard recounted how government was taken unawares by the attack.
Government dispatched handheld displayers two weeks after the attack.
“It doesn’t kill the locust, it just scares them away,” Taibu said when asked about the cypermelhein spray.
The intervention was a sharp contrast with the airborne response in Tanzania where International Red Locust Organisation for Central and Southern Africa (Irlocsa) has deployed aeroplanes to combat a similar attack.
The smallholders farmers say the response was too little too late, wishing the intervention was as swift as did Illovo Sugar Company when the swarms hit its Nchalo Estate last week.
Speaking when he visited Nchalo last week, Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development George Chaponda commended Illovo, saying government was shocked by the attack.
But the affected rural farmers are faced by worsened food uncertainties until the next harvest in March.
Almost 13 million Malawians will be hit hard by the chronic food shortage, Mvac reports.
Francis is optimistic to pick himself up, saying: “I will have harvest something in the next 90 days if I replant.”
However, Angaanatha Alufeyo, who entirely relies on rain-fed agriculture, has to wait for March.
To Alufeyo, the impact of the locust attack on maize yield means higher prices for the grain.
A packet, weighing around 750 grams, costs about K150 in the area.
Alufeyo needs adequate nutritious food to breastfeed her one-year-old son.
However, she only eats once a day as desperation has pushed prices of the scarce grain higher.
“When I buy the K150 packet, it only gives us two meals and we start starving again if my husband does not bring something,” she explained.
Food prices rising
In Mbenje Village, about 60 kilometers away, hungry Malawians are increasingly resorting to nyika. The locals say they eat the blackish natural tuber, extracted from riverbeds, once in a while in times of plenty, but it has become a daily meal because it remains is affordable in this lean period.
“We pay K50 for a small heap of eight. Five of us need at least six heaps. That’s K300 just for lunch,” said Mbenje villager Maliyamu Joseph.
Like many, she depends on doing piece works in fields and homes of her well-to-do neighbours.
“Jobs are getting scarce and pay is dwindling. Portions we used to farm at K1 000 now cost K500. They are taking advantage of the situation because they know we have no option,” she says.
The assessment warns that some lives may be lost if emergency food supplies are not provided on time, but President Peter Mutharika says no one will die of hunger.
Currently, government through its partners has rolled out social empowerment programme in which needy Malawians receive cash or food to take helps them overcome the lean period.
Francis, Lufeyo and Joseph are not on this year’s list of beneficiaries.
But Chaponda, speaking when he toured winter- cropping plots at Nchalo Estate, said the consignments are coming from different partners and this might have influenced this.
He said: “It is not up to my ministry to give a complete response, but we are doing everything possible to ensure there is enough food.
“We are still buying maize and will open admarc markets next month,” said Chaponda. n