COVID-19 and LOCUST-20 lead to unprecedented famine in East Africa

This month, communities across East Africa, which are already unsteady from the impact of COVID-19, are now also forced to fight against new swarms of locusts. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states that the locust outbreaks in Ethiopia and Somalia are the worst in 25 years and in Kenya the worst in 75 years. The FAO expects that swarms will rise in June and July at the time of harvest and could cause ‘biblical’ famines. David Beasley, head of the World Food Programme (WFP) said that urgent action is needed to avoid a catastrophe. The President of the African Development Bank believes that an unprecedented race against time has begun to urgently halt the progression and potentially destructive impact of COVID-19 and the locust swarms in Africa. The European Commission and the FAO have gathered funds to help in the fight against the growing locust swarms but challenges remain due to COVID-19. 


The President of the African Development Bank, Akinwumi A. Adesina, states that with the COVID-19 lockdowns, pest control workers are largely unable to go out to spray against the locust. While restrictions have been lifted to allow the operation of aircrafts used to spray, they can do little as they are largely unable to get access to the chemicals, due to disruption of supply chains. In addition, Claire Nasike, a food campaigner at Greenpeace Africa, says many farmers do not work in their fields due to the ongoing lockdown. That also slows the response to the swarms. 

Cyril Ferrand, the East Africa resilience team leader for the FAO believes that time is of the essence in the fight against the locust swarms. He raises awareness by giving the example that shipments of pesticides were delayed due to COVID-19 flight restrictions.

David Beasley, head of the World Food Programme (WFP), expressed fear that 30 million people, and possibly more, could die within a matter of months if the UN does not secure more funding and food. This is difficult because countries and donors are already occupied with the steep financial cost of their own Covid-19 crises.

Besides COVID-19 worsening the situation, Kim Kariuki, engagement director at Busara Centre for Behavioral Economics says that African countries “do not have national locust control programs, hence they lack the needed systems in place to mount an effective defence.” Professor and principal scientist Torto at the University of Pretoria states that authorities “should work with locusts scientists involved in forecasting to identify the breeding sites and get control officers on the ground as quickly as possible to control juveniles as they emerge”.

The Food and Agriculture Organization

The FAO states that in desert locust-affected countries, the vast majority of the population depend on agriculture for their livelihoods (for example, up to 80% of the population in Ethiopia and 75% in Kenya). A second, much bigger wave of locusts is causing destruction on a vast scale across East Africa at the moment. David Hughes from the FAO explains the severe implications for many countries in the region by saying that the new locusts “threatens the food supply of 23 million people” and it is the “number one food security issue in East Africa at the moment”. 

In February, the FAO launched an appeal for rapid response and anticipatory action in the Greater Horn of Africa in light of the desert locust crisis. The FAO urgently requires 138 million dollars to support rapid control and surveillance operations from January to December 2020 and wants to prevent a deterioration in the food security situation and safeguard livelihoods. The FAO already gathered 126,8 million dollars in funding from various organisations and countries.  

Some highlights of ongoing activities under FAO’s Desert Locust Response Plan include 531.000 hectare surveyed and 143.000 hectare treated so far; 309.000 litres of pesticide, 4.700 kg of bio-pesticide, 36 sprayers and 12 aircraft (planes and helicopters) procured and damage and needs assessments planned through working groups. Ambrose Ngetich, FAO project officer, says that it “requires a lot of personnel and capacity to be able to undertake all the controlled operations and also managing the surveillance in terms of the ground team”. 

African Development Bank

On April 1, the African Development Bank approved a 1.5 million USD emergency relief grant to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the FAO to support efforts to spray against locusts and safeguard livelihoods in the East and the Horn of Africa.

European Commission

On February 27, the European Commission mobilized €10 million to respond to one of the worst desert locust outbreaks in decades in East Africa. The outbreak could have a devastating impact on food security in an already vulnerable region where 27.5 million people suffer from severe food insecurity and at least 35 million more are at risk. The EU’s €10 million contribution is in addition to €1 million that is already mobilized from humanitarian funds.

The Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen states that the EUmust enhance the capacity to collectively respond to these threats and have a responsibility to step in now to avoid a major crisis, tackle the root causes of this natural disaster, and protect livelihoods and food production”.

Ambrose Ngetich, FAO project officer, states that if the swarms are not controlled soon, they could grow 400 times bigger by June, destroy food supply of millions of people and cause unprecedented famine. Farmers in East Africa are witnessing a crisis within a crisis as the largest swarms of locusts in a generation appear in combination with the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. Several initiatives and donors try to halt the locust swarms but COVID-19 is hampering this process. The Coronavirus kills, but hunger could kill many more people so more needs to be done.