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African Gov’ts move into race to halt armyworm catastrophe

Dr. Joe DeVries

When my team and I visited Felix Jumbe, of Peacock Seeds, a hybrid seed grower in Salima, Malawi, in March this year, we were shocked by the destruction caused by the fall armyworm. Virtually every plant in every row of the 20 Ha hybrid section of the Peacock Seeds farm had been severely damaged.

Jumbe and his farm manager had sprayed the field four times with pesticides, but to no avail, triggering losses of $150,000 on just that one 20 Ha field. The scale of the damage in Malawi prompted AGRA to issue a call to action that has since drawn together scientists from across the agricultural sector. But the worm has continued to spread, now to Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and most recently to Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It has so far destroyed over 300,000 hectares of maize across Africa, which is the staple food to more than 200 million people in the region.

Kenya’s Trans Nzoia County, considered the country’s food basket, has, alone, lost 103,876 hectares of maize, in destruction that is set to cause serious maize shortages ahead and comes hard on the heels of a drought-triggered shortfall. Authorities have reported that in Rwanda, the pest has infested maize and sorghum crops across a full quarter of the country’s cropped land. The worm has similarly infested 90,000 hectares of maize in Zambia, 17,000 hectares in Malawi, 130,000 hectares in Zimbabwe, approximately 50,000 hectares of maize and millet in Namibia, over 40 per cent of the crops in Uganda, and over 20,000 hectares of maize in northern and south-eastern Tanzania.

The Center for Agricultural and Biosciences International (CABI) estimates the losses to Africa’s maize could cost the continent $3bn in the coming year. Nor is maize the sole casualty. The fall armyworm feeds on more than 80 plant species, including rice, rice, sorghum, sugarcane and vegetable crops. Little is known, however, about how it came to Africa. Scientists suggest the insect may have arrived in imported food from America. Or it might have crossed the Atlantic in wind currents, with the wind borne adult moths capable of covering vast distances.

But its subsequent spread has been ferocious. The worm was first reported in West Africa in January last year. It quickly spread to Central Africa, before reaching Zambia and spreading across all of southern Africa. Farmers and governments have scrambled to respond. Ghana, for instance, declared a state of emergency as the worm swept through its crops. The Zambian government deployed its national air force to transport pesticides across the country for spraying. Likewise, Rwandan soldiers have been diverted to spraying fields. But the impact has been limited, often because the treatment has been applied too late in the worm’s life cycle.

There is hope a biological agent could help in future. Lancaster University professor Kenneth Wilson found a virus that killed the loosely related African armyworm. Replicating the same virus in the fall armyworm could create a viable pesticide against the insect. Lessons can also be drawn from Brazil, which has grappled with the worm for decades, even as the pest has developed resistance to a growing range of pesticides. The country spends some $600m a year in the battle, but has benefitted from the worm’s vulnerability to freezing temperatures, meaning that turning soils in the cold season can kill the pupae and lavae between harvests.

In Africa, cold is not a ready tool, with rising temperature levels further fueling the worm’s spread. Curbing the damage ahead, therefore, requires concerted action, in which the farmer is placed at the heart of the fight. It is vital to generate a massive awareness campaign to educate farmers on early detection signs, so that infestations are tackled early and at speed. To be effective, farmers also need to know exactly what they need to do – which pesticides are effective, and how they need to be applied. They also need to access supplies, and may require support in applying control measures rapidly enough.

Enabling our agricultural communities with quick and coordinated responses is now essential, to ensure the continent stays ahead of the plague. African governments are urgently identifying capacity and building strategic alliances with key stakeholders in the agricultural sector to achieve both short and long-term action plans to address this pest. This drive offers the hope, over time, of delivering an integrated management strategy that can save Africa’s agricultural sector, which feeds the continent and is key to Africa’s economic transformation.

Other parts of Africa can draw lessons from Southern Africa. Despite major infestation by the worm, the region has recorded bumper harvests this season. Although this greatly attributed to increased acreage under cultivation and higher use oif improved seed varieties and fertilizer as a response to the devastating drought, this may also point to greater resilience against the warm. Such lessons and more need to be distilled quickly and applied elsewhere on the continent. We cannot allow the fall armyworm  to wipe out all the gains made in the agricultural sector. That makes the fall armyworm an issue too urgent to ignore, and a challenge that now needs to be on every agenda.

Dr. Joe DeVries is AGRA Vice President for Programmes.

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Is COVID-19 Flogging an Already Dead Economic Horse?

9th September 2020

The Central Bank has by way of its Monetary Policy Statement informed us that the Botswana economy is likely to contract by 8.9 percent over the course of the year 2020.

The IMF paints an even gloomier picture – a shrinkage of the order of 9.6 percent.  That translates to just under $2 billion hived off from the overall economic yield given our average GDP of roughly $18 billion a year. In Pula terms, this is about P23 billion less goods and services produced in the country and you and I have a good guess as to what such a sum can do in terms of job creation and sustainability, boosting tax revenue, succouring both recurrent and development expenditure, and on the whole keeping our teeny-weeny economy in relatively good nick.

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Union of Blue Bloods

9th September 2020

Joseph’s and Judah’s family lines conjoin to produce lineal seed

Just to recap, General Atiku, the Israelites were not headed for uncharted territory. The Promised Land teemed with Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. These nations were not simply going to cut and run when they saw columns of battle-ready Israelites approach: they were going to fight to the death.

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Security Sector Private Bills: What are they about?

9th September 2020

Parliament has begun debates on three related Private Members Bills on the conditions of service of members of the Security Sector.

The Bills are Prisons (Amendment) Bill, 2019, Police (Amendment) Bill, 2019 and Botswana Defence Force (Amendment) Bill, 2019. The Bills seek to amend the three statutes so that officers are placed on full salaries when on interdictions or suspensions whilst facing disciplinary boards or courts of law.

In terms of the Public Service Act, 2008 which took effect in 2010, civil servants who are indicted are paid full salary and not a portion of their emolument. Section 35(3) of the Act specifically provides that “An employee’s salary shall not be withheld during the period of his or her suspension”.

However, when parliament reformed the public service law to allow civil servants to unionize, among other things, and extended the said protection of their salaries, the process was not completed. When the House conferred the benefit on civil servants, members of the disciplined forces were left out by not accordingly amending the laws regulating their employment.

The Bills stated above seeks to ask Parliament to also include members of the forces on the said benefit. It is unfair not to include soldiers or military officers, police officers and prison waders in the benefit. Paying an officer who is facing either external or internal charges full pay is in line with the notion of ei incumbit probation qui dicit, non qui negat or the presumption of innocence; that the burden of proof is on the one who declares, not on one who denies.

The officers facing charges, either internal disciplinary or criminal charges before the courts, must be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. Paying them a portion of their salary is penalty and therefore arbitrary. Punishment by way of loss of income or anything should come as a result of a finding on the guilt by a competent court of law, tribunal or disciplinary board.

What was the rationale behind this reform in 2008 when the Public Service Act was adopted? First it was the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise.

The presumption of innocence is the legal principle that one is considered “innocent until proven guilty”. In terms of the constitution and other laws of Botswana, the presumption of innocence is a legal right of the accused in a criminal trial, and it is an international human right under the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 11.

Withholding a civil servant’s salary because they are accused of an internal disciplinary offense or a criminal offense in the courts of law, was seen as punishment before a decision by a tribunal, disciplinary board or a court of law actually finds someone culpable. Parliament in its wisdom decided that no one deserves this premature punishment.

Secondly, it was considered that people’s lives got destroyed by withholding of financial benefits during internal or judicial trials. Protection of wages is very important for any worker. Workers commit their salaries, they pay mortgages, car loans, insurances, schools fees for children and other things. When public servants were experiencing salary cuts because of interdictions, they lost their homes, cars and their children’s future.

They plummeted into instant destitution. People lost their livelihoods. Families crumbled. What was disheartening was that in many cases, these workers are ultimately exonerated by the courts or disciplinary tribunals. When they are cleared, the harm suffered is usually irreparable. Even if one is reimbursed all their dues, it is difficult to almost impossible to get one’s life back to normal.

There is a reasoning that members of the security sector should be held to very high standards of discipline and moral compass. This is true. However, other more senior public servants such as judges, permanent secretary to the President and ministers have faced suspensions, interdictions and or criminal charges in the courts but were placed on full salaries.

The yardstick against which security sector officers are held cannot be higher than the aforementioned public officials. It just wouldn’t make sense. They are in charge of the security and operate in a very sensitive area, but cannot in anyway be held to higher standards that prosecutors, magistrates, judges, ministers and even senior officials such as permanent secretaries.

Moreover, jail guards, police officers and soldiers, have unique harsh punishments which deter many of them from committing misdemeanors and serious crimes. So, the argument that if the suspension or interdiction with full pay is introduced it would open floodgates of lawlessness is illogical.

Security Sector members work in very difficult conditions. Sometimes this drives them into depression and other emotional conditions. The truth is that many seldom receive proper and adequate counseling or such related therapies. They see horrifying scenes whilst on duty. Jail guards double as hangmen/women.

Detectives attend to autopsies on cases they are dealing with. Traffic police officers are usually the first at accident scenes. Soldiers fight and kill poachers. In all these cases, their minds are troubled. They are human. These conditions also play a part in their behaviors. They are actually more deserving to be paid full salaries when they’re facing allegations of misconduct.

To withhold up to 50 percent of the police, prison workers and the military officers’ salaries during their interdiction or suspensions from work is punitive, insensitive and prejudicial as we do not do the same for other employees employed by the government.

The rest enjoy their full salaries when they are at home and it is for a good reason as no one should be made to suffer before being found blameworthy. The ruling party seems to have taken a position to negate the Bills and the collective opposition argue in the affirmative. The debate have just began and will continue next week Thursday, a day designated for Private Bills.

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