Maize plants

The ingenious solutions saving maize harvests in rural Africa

Sheila Halder, Farm Systems Coordinator, tells us why organic solutions to protecting staple crops seem to be providing the best results - for people and planet.

As Coronavirus grips much of the world, it’s easy for us to forget about other challenges people are facing in their daily lives. Last month we posted a statement about the Locust plague that has swept through East Africa, ravaging crops grown for both food and fodder.

The swarm was reported as the worst infestation of locusts for quarter of a century, and resulted from a sudden bout of higher than usual rainfall; we are unfortunately likely to see more of these swarms as the climate continues to destabilise.

Caren and her children out to harvest

Harvesting maize can bring in a vital income for families across rural Africa

Family farmers in rural Africa are familiar with many pests from aphids to African army worms but in recent years, there are new patterns and problems emerging, and keeping crops free from both infestations and poisonous pesticides is a daily challenge.

While minimising the impacts of locust swarms requires national and international coordination - and divides opinion over chemical or physical interventions - there are fortunately many local and organic solutions to common pests such as stemborer moths, whose larvae bore through the stems of young maize plants, destroying entire harvests.

Push-Pull technology

To respond to the challenge of stemborer moths we are training farmers in two techniques of companion planting that produce outstanding effects, naturally protecting plants from pests without the use of chemical pesticides as well as improving soil health. Developed in East Africa by ICIPE, Push-Pull is a locally appropriate way for family farmers to protect crops.

Conventional Push-Pull involves planting napier grass as a border crop and silver leaf desmodium intercropped with the maize.

Climate Smart Push-Pull is the second technique and this involves planting two particularly drought tolerant species in the system: brachiaria as a border grass and green leaf desmodium as the intercrop, able to cope with increasingly sporadic rains.  Both of these techniques are affordable, organic and have the added benefit of producing locally grown fodder for livestock.

A group learning how to process Napier grass for livestock fodder

A group learning how to process Napier grass for livestock fodder

Lead peer farmer, Wise established his push-pull plot in December 2019. He told us,

“I have noticed that the areas where desmodium is well established there are few Stemborers compared to my conventional field adjacent - here nearly all the plants are infested… [and] the stemborer moth are destroying the plans which are food for my livestock. This technology is working, [it’s as if if] all the desmodium and the brachiaria were well established, I will have no challenges with this pest.”

But why is it called Push-Pull?

As explained in the video above, Maize farmers in rural Africa are in fact facing two big problems:  Stemborer moths and striga weed.

The striga weed’s roots latch onto the maize underground and steal the nutrients from its roots. By planting desmodium between the maize, it tackles problem of striga weed while fertilizing the soil – desmodium is also a legume as well. It releases a chemical that tricks striga weed into germinating, without being near to a maize plant to support its growth.

The push part happens above ground where the scent released by the desmodium sees off the stemborer moths and prevents its larvae burrowing through the maize, before it has produced its edible harvest.  The moths instead go into the grass trap crop where the caterpillars don’t survive.

Veronica and her children carrying water in Zambia

Water is scarce in the region, as a result of climate change

Scaling-up solutions

In Zambia, we are working in the Petauke district, with thanks to the innocent foundation, to increase the numbers of family farmers who are trained in Push-Pull technology. Petauke is one of the driest regions in the country so climate smart methods to safeguard Maize harvests are essential, with two sub-species of stemborers, Busseola fusca and Chilo partellus, being the most problematic.

Olipa Phiri, Push-Pull Lead Farmer has high-hopes for this technology in Zambia:

“I am beginning to appreciate the benefits of Push-Pull Technology as the infestation levels on my crops were lower on the Push-Pull demonstration plot, compared to my main maize field. The maize on the demonstration plot looks healthy!”

Helping farmers to grow and protect their crops while also protecting the environment is an approach which Send a Cow have championed for the last 30 years. Read more about how we work, our unique approach to sustainable development, and why our projects get results.