Zondwayo Jere, 36, has been growing tomatoes since 1999 when a friend told him that the crop is profitable.
He has not regretted venturing into the enterprise as he has built three houses roofed with iron sheets at his home, Jenda in Mzimba District.
“Tomato farming has also enabled me to pay school fees for my four children. My family is happy because I provide all basic necessities,” says Jere.
However, he is now worried with the devastating pests which have attacked 40 hectares of tomato gardens at Jenda.
Jere is one of the 1 143 farmers whose tomato gardens have been attacked by a pest called leaf miner. The larvae of this pest bore into leaves and fruit to feed below their surface, forming mines as they move along. The network of mines produced as a result of this feeding also serves as an entry point for other disease, which leads to further damage.
Although tomato is the main host for the leaf miner, it can also affect potato and other plants. The pest originated in Latin America but has spread to Europe, Asia and more recently, Africa where it has caught smallholder farmers such as Jere unprepared.
Speaking recently during an interactive meeting organised by Civil Society Agriculture Network (CisaNet) with funding from Irish Aid, Jere said he is very doubtful if he will make any profit from his one hectare tomato garden.
“This growing season, it has become very expensive to take care of this crop. I spend K30 000 (about $44) on pesticides every week. I doubt if I will raise enough money this year to pay school fees for my children,” Jere says.
Unfortunately, the pesticides, which include abmetin and dimeathoate, have not solved the problem as the night-flying pests continue terrorising the tomato fields.
Jenda, which is under Champhira Extension Planning Area (EPA), is one of the main suppliers of tomatoes to Mzuzu and Lilongwe cities. Therefore, the attack has led to scarcity of tomato meaning prices of the crop have risen in these cities and surrounding districts such as Kasungu and Dowa.
Last year, the pests attacked tomatoes in Tanzania hence Champhira agricultural extension development officer Melody Banda suspects it has originated from there. He says this is one of the most destructive pests of tomato and can lead to total loss in the field if left unmanaged.
In Tanzania, the pest led to yield reduction and a 375 percent increase in the cost of tomatoes.
Jere and his fellow tomato farmers wonder whether this pest can be defeated considering its resistance to pesticides.
“There are a number of management options that will help to reduce the damage caused by the tomato leaf miner. These include disposing of infected fruit, setting pheromone traps and spraying either bio-control or a chemical pesticide,” says Banda.
These pests have not only brought misery to farmers, but also to people who engage in tomato trade. A business woman who buys tomatoes at Jenda for resell at Mponela Trading Centre in Dowa, Caroline Nyirenda, said it is no longer easy to find good tomatoes from Jenda. She predicts a rise of tomato prices on the market, especially in districts which rely on Jenda for supply.
“Jenda is where I buy tomatoes which I resell at Mponela Market. I buy from Jenda because it is more profitable to buy there than Ntcheu. However, my business has been affected because it is not easy to find good tomatoes. I am thinking of starting another business now. I may start selling cabbage,” says Nyirenda.
Considering how fast the pest is spreading from one place to another, it is likely that if control measures are not taken with urgency, other tomato growing districts such as Ntcheu and Dedza will also be attacked by the pest.
Cisanet national coordinator Tamani Nkhono-Mvula says responsible stakeholders should ensure that farmers are aware of how to control this pest.
He says: “Farmers should be aware of causes, signs and prevention of this pest. Spraying chemicals can be expensive and hazardous hence, experts in agriculture should come up with sustainable ways of controlling pests.
“We should have agriculture experts at all our borders to control ‘import’ of crop pests and diseases. Let us also find out from Tanzania on how they fought it.”
Nkhono-Mvula also suggests that it is time for Malawian farmers to think of crop insurance. He says this can be possible if farmers work in cooperatives.
Prominent Blantyre-based chartered insurance practitioner Macdonald Liwonde Chibwe agrees that farmers should insure their crops to avoid loss when their crops are affected by pests or diseases.
“It is possible for farmers to insure crops against such eventualities under crop insurance. However, our local market does not currently offer such cover. But being an agro-based economy, the insurance market can be eager to explore that. Considering that such insurance policies are expensive, government and our international partners would do well to help subsidise the cost to the peasant farmers,” Chibwe says. n