Director’s update

Caterpillars, comics and contexts

18 February 2010

Ian Maudlin writes

An update on three Best Bets working on armyworm, sleeping sickness and communicating agricultural messages to young people.

The first few weeks of 2010 have been a busy time for RIU. The four Best Bets projects selected for funding late last year have now all passed due diligence and contracts have been issued. One of these is concerned with armyworm and combines community-based forecasting of an attack with control using a bio-pesticide.
Our decision to back this project has turned out to be extremely timely – major armyworm outbreaks occurred in central Tanzania during December and, soon after, in parts of Kenya. Farmers, many of whom had just emerged from the drought, have witnessed their pasture and crops being devastated by ravenous hoards of armyworm – which is actually the caterpillar of a migratory moth. Our RIUtv correspondent, Nik Wood, lost no time in getting out in the field to document the outbreak and speak to the farmers concerned – his report and film from the frontline is included below.

At first, the pastureland in the Rift Valley looked simply dry and barren. But a closer inspection revealed armyworms – millions of them. They had devoured much of the grassland and with it, the livelihood of farmer Moriaso Kindi.
“I keep cattle on this land and now, after the armyworm have been, they will probably die and that means I will lose my animals and my family will go hungry,” he told me.
In one square metre of grassland, up to 1,000 of the armyworms can be found, eating their way through pasture and crops. The moths that lay the eggs that become armyworms can also travel long distances. Thousands of hectares of land across Kenya and Tanzania have been hit by the outbreak, which caught farmers and the agricultural authorities by surprise.
A few fields away, Moriaso’s neighbour, Mary Naini had planted a field of beans and maize. As the armyworms went on the move, they stripped the maize, leaving only half her crop. I filmed as the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture began spraying the area with pesticide but by then it was too late, the voracious eaters had already had their fill.
However a project, funded by Research Into Use, which will help to predict the onset of the worms, is now underway.
After a long drive through Nairobi, to a farmer training centre near the town of Machakos, I saw real progress in the programme aimed at establishing a network of community-based forecasters, which will help the authorities and farmers fight back in the war against armyworm.
Thanks to the funding from Best Bets, a group of Ministry officials were being trained to use special traps that predict the infestations and, in turn, to train up the community-based forecasters so that farmers across countries like Kenya and Tanzania, can be better prepared.
You can see details of the training in the RIUtv report linked to this blog but it was so pleasing to see the Best Bets programme having a direct impact on the fortunes of small farmers and laying the foundations for the agriculture ministries to take up the idea of using the traps and having more manufactured in the future.

Follow the link to the Best Bets armyworm page to see this film.

This was only the latest in a series of Best Bets projects which Nik has visited while in Africa and I am looking forward to seeing more of his films on RIUtv.

Meanwhile our exemplar Best Bet project on sleeping sickness control in Uganda – selected at an early stage of the RIU programme as one of the high-potential clusters of research outputs from previous DFID-supported agricultural research – is going from strength to strength. It involves the use of two new approaches to the control of sleeping sickness: block treatment of cattle (which carry the human-infective sleeping sickness parasite as well as related parasites that cause a similar disease in cattle) with drugs and then regular spraying of cattle to control tsetse flies, which spread the disease from cattle to cattle and also from cattle to people. This week the BBRSC announced a new round of awards for animal health projects in developing countries Amongst these was a £1 million award to enable the approach being used in Uganda to be tried out in Nigeria for the control of the cattle form of the disease. A major issue with learning lessons about creating better links between research and innovation is that so much appears to be context specific. We are now in the very fortunate position of being able to compare experiences of putting similar research into use in two very different contexts, which should generate some very useful lessons. Having devoted most of my life to working on sleeping sickness I will follow in Uganda and Nigeria with particular interest.

Shujaaz emerged from the Best Bets processas a partner to another project, FIPS but we quickly realized that that it had greater potential. So, RIU made Shujaaz a Best Bets in its own right. This arrangement allows us to make wider user of the Shujaaz platform – which includes monthly comic books distributed via a leading Kenya newspaper and Safaricom’s nationwide Mpesa money transfer agents network, regular radio and television broadcasts and interactive text messaging. The first issue of Shujaaz is being distributed with the Daily Nation on Saturday 20 February: in total half a million copies of the first issue will be distributed via the two complementary distribution networks.

The West Africa round of Best Bets is underway. By the closing date in late January we had received 85 concept notes and we will soon be announcing the shortlist. The Best Bets process worked really well for round one, but for round two we are going to try out a slightly different approach, adopting a more ‘virtual’ approach in place of the ‘real’ event we staged in Nairobi in November. More details will be announced soon.

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