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.”

Time Audio Visual
00:01 [Music] Send a Cow and Riverford logos. 'In partnership' text.
00:05 [Music] Point of view: walking down a maize path 'Push-pull technology: an innovative crop pest solution' text.
00:10 Send a Cow supports farmers in sub-saharan africa to grow themselves out of poverty Camera spans onto couple under banana trees harvesting their crop
00:15 by giving communities the hope and the means to secure their own futures from the land Couple are walking hand-in-hand with their harvest
00:20 Our approach empowers families with the confidence skills and self-belief to grow sufficient food and generate income Photo of a smiling woman in bright clothing counting through savings
00:27 while regenerating the natural environment protecting ecosystems and enhancing biodiversity. Photo of cooperative sat together and a couple stood beside a keyhole garden
00:33 As farm systems coordinator I work with our in-country teams to find and design innovative and cost-effective solutions to the challenges smallholder farmers face such as falling crop yields soil degradation and pests Shelia Halder, Send a Cow Farm System Coordinator talking
00:48 Smallholder farmers are often wholly dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods; growing a variety of staple crops including maize Woman walking through fields and harvesting crops such as maize
00:57 Maize is one of the major crops grown in the world and in africa alone the lives of 300 million people depend on it Shelia Halder, Send a Cow Farm System Coordinator talking
01:07 However erratic weather patterns combined with parasitic weeds such as Striga weed Purple Striga weed plants growing in abundance
01:12 and destructive insects like stembora moths Hands investigate stembora moth larvae on a maize crop
01:13 can completely decimate maze crops resulting in widespread hunger and poverty Ariel shot of a maize field
01:19 The common response to these pests would be chemical pesticides but these are often devastating for ecosystems and water supplies Shelia Halder, Send a Cow Farm System Coordinator talking
01:27 Smallholder farmers are often in a very difficult position, their families are severely malnourished but they don't have the means to protect their crops from pests A couple tend to their crops
01:37 [Narrator] Send a Cow have teamed up with ICIPE  to implement push-pull, an affordable nature-based solution to falling maize yield. The following explanation shows how it works Ariel shot over fields of green crops
01:48 To properly understand the need for push-pull we must first look at two pests; the stemborer moth and Striga weed Animation shows Stemborer moth and Striga weed side by side
01:56 First the stembora moth, they lay their larvae on maize stems and leaves and when they hatch the larvae literally bore through the stems and leaves hence their name. Zooms in on Stemborer moth laying eggs on the maize plants. The larvae begin to eat the leaves
02:06 Secondly Striga weed is a parasitic weed, its roots latch onto the maize and drain it of nutrients Striga plant roots attach themselves to the maize plant roots
02:14 Together stryga and the stembora can wipe out an entire crop Hover above the maize field animation
02:18 Push-pull technology is an integrated pest management system which can mitigate both pests. "Push pull technology" text on screen
02:25 Farmers start by intercropping maize with desmodium and because the maize is planted at normal spacing there's no sacrifice of planting area by adding it Animation shows desmodium plants growing inbetween rows of maize
02:33 Desmodium is a legume plant that produces airborne chemicals that repel the stembora moths or push them away from the maize Animation shows smell rising from desmodium plants and the moth flying away
02:41 Desmodium also induce suicidal germination of the strigaweed, clearing the soil of the parasitic weed Animation shows the strigaweed roots dying off
02:49 Being a legume, desmodium also fixes nitrogen in the soil, increasing nutrients and reducing soil degradation Animation shows sparkling soil around the desmodium roots
02:56 On the border of their maize plot farmers plant brachiaria or napier grass a great animal feed. Animation shows plants growing around the maize field
03:02 These grasses attract or pull the moths away from the maize. Zoom into the naiper grass
03:06 The moths lay their larvae on the grass but they are unable to survive on the leaves thus reducing the number of stembora moths. Moth larvae on the grass begins to drop off
03:14 By implementing push-pull technology, Pans over animated maize field.
03:16 farmers see increased maze yields for human consumption as well as increased yields of livestock feed which they can use on their own farm or sell to neighbours or at the local market Stembora moths fly away from the maiz to the naiper grass and the desmodum plants thrive. ICIPE logo in the top right hand corner
03:29 Push Pull in action' text
03:34 John lives in Petauke, Zambia with his wife and children John lives in Petauke, Zambia with his wife and children' text and photo of Joh with family of 6
03:39 He began practicing push pull in 2018 and his maize harvests have greatly improved. He began practicing push pull in 2018 and his maize harvests have greatly improved.' text with photo of John in his field.
03:44 He says 'Push pull has helped me and my family to have a steady source of income with good yields from our maize now it's free from the stembora.' Push pull has helped me and my family to have a steady source of income with good yields from our maize now it's free from the stembora.' text with same image
03:52 The soil has improved and i've started feeding my goats with desmodium. The soil has improved and i've started feeding my goats with desmodium.' Text
03:54 I want to thank Send a Cow for bringing this kind of technology to us I had never heard of it before' I want to thank Send a Cow for bringing this kind of technology to us I had never heard of it before' Text with image of John and his family.
04:00 John plans to use his increased income to send his small children to school and reinvest in his farm. John plans to use his increased income to send his small children to school and reinvest in his farm. Text with same image.
04:07 Music In partnership with Riverford. Text
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.