There are some disturbing developments for tomato producing farmers in Jenda area in Mzimba as their popular crop of choice, grown as a cash crop, is under siege from pests. The fruit becomes inedible.
Agriculturalists and scientists have identified the pests as leaf miners. The leaf miners, which literally mine through tomato fruits and leaves, have sent farmers into a panic mode because they have to dig deeper to get pesticides for spray.
Spraying pesticides is yielding very low desired results because over 90 percent of the 1, 143 households in Jenda that earn their living by growing tomatoes are now distraught. Most of their tomatoes are wiped out.
An agricultural extension officer in Champhira, Melody Banda, said farmers have lost at least 20 hectares of the rain-fed crop adding that the leaf miner has been known to reduce crop yields by 80-100 percent on tomato farms.
“Farmers are desperately spraying pesticides to fend off the assault. The frequent application of these pesticides might however be wiping out other beneficial insects. Further, regular applications are not so good for the environment,” said Banda.
The plague of leaf miner moths, devouring tomato crops around Jenda in Mzimba, has consequently driven the tomato price up at least three times when compared to last season.
Farmers fear that the low production is also a threat to the establishment of the tomato factory plant at Jenda Trading Centre where a Rural Growth Centre has been created to spur economic growth.
The leaf miner moth was first observed in tomato fields in October last year in Champhira Extension Planning Area (EPA).
Speaking during an interface meeting organised by the Civil Society Agriculture Network (Cisanet) with financial support from Irish Aid, Zondwayo Jere, one of the tomato farmers, described the moth as “a bad guy” ever to invade his garden.
“I have been growing and selling tomatoes since 1999 but I have never seen an invasive moth like this. It has a voracious appetite, and its favourite food is tomatoes, nothing else.
“I used to cart home K500,000 whenever I grew tomatoes on my one hectare plot but now I can only take home K150,000. I have to spray pesticides every week and this is not sustainable. I spend at least K30, 000 every week to save the crop from the moth destruction. If I don’t spray, the entire crop will be gone,” lamented Jere as he took a team of journalists through his garden.
The plague of the leaf miner around Jenda is not only threatening smallholder farmers’ livelihoods but the national economy as agriculture remains the country’s backbone.
It is estimated that Malawi’s agricultural sector accounts for 40 percent of Gross Domestic Product and 80 percent of export earnings and 85 percent of the national population are directly dependent on agriculture for food security and economic livelihood support, according to the Agriculture Sector Wide Approach (ASWAp2010) and the National Statistical Office (NSO 2009), respectively.
The agricultural sector is of national importance, with the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) aiming to increase agricultural productivity and food varieties by increasing value addition to agricultural products by smallholder farmers and orienting smallholder farmers to greater commercialisation, and strengthening the linkages of farmers to markets.
Aswap prefers tomato as an important source of nutrition as well as a contributing factor for improved smallholder incomes but many households who participate in the production of the fruit are gripped with fear as production has drastically reduced.
Tomato production is a popular crop choice in the Jenda area in Mzimba. It is grown as a cash crop but also supports diets when necessary. Tomato is widely grown in wetland area during winter but also as a rain-fed crop. Each growing season lasts for around 8-12 weeks.
Lincy Zimba, another tomato farmer, has urged government and other interested institutions to come up with control mechanisms to stop the pest in its tracks before all the farmers’ investment and gains are eroded.
“This pest has the potential to disrupt our livelihoods and thereby causing serious economic damage to Malawi,” Zimba told reporters during the interface meeting. “It’s tomatoes that feed us. We afford desired food and we are able to meet all the expenses of our school-going children. But all this is threatened.”
Village Headman David Jere explained that farmers’ chief challenge is lack of information.
“It took us a lot of time to know what was whittling away our crops and how we could defend the crops. We need information so that we can pass on this to other areas bordering us,” he said. “We must establish relationships with all local farmers, scientists, input suppliers, and collaborate with all stakeholders.”
Cisanet National Director Tamani Nkhono-Mvula concurred with Village Headman David Jere urging government to come up with a communication strategy to raise awareness of the invasive pest and on what the farmers should do.
“Government should liaise with research institutions and find the best way of educating the farmers on the common signs and symptoms. Spraying chemicals is expensive on the part of the farmers and hazardous to some extent, hence experts in the agriculture sector should come up with sustainable ways of controlling the pest,” said Nkhono-Mvula in an interview.
He also encouraged farmers to join farmers’ clubs or cooperatives noting that vital information is best discussed in groups as such it will be easy to access extension services in relation to the pest.
Nkhono-Mvula also suggested that government should deploy agriculturists to border posts and that police should also be trained to identify imported crops and associated products suspected to be disease or pest carriers.
During the visit to some of the tomato fields, it was noted that most tomatoes had marks, abnormal shape, holes and fine powdery material that plant-eating insects passed as waste. They were also rotten.