Rex Chapota, Farm Radio International’s Regional Manager for East and Southern Africa, calls himself a “weekend farmer.”
From eight till five, Monday to Friday, he works on radio initiatives, and on the weekends, he heads to his farm where he grows enough maize for his family to eat, with a little extra to sell.
“Maize is our staple food. In my country, Malawi, if you don’t eat maize, you have not eaten,” he says. “It’s part of our culture and it’s food security for me. We are always eating it, so why would I go out and buy when I can grow it myself?”
But, in early 2018, he returned to his farm after a two-week dry spell to discover something was wrong with his crop. Upon closer inspection, he discovered the Fall armyworm — a hungry caterpillar with a voracious appetite—snacking on his month-old plants.
The Fall Armyworm is an invasive species from the Americas that first arrived on the African continent in 2016. Since then, it has spread to most of sub-Saharan Africa, devastating the crops many rely on for food.
Rex has been deeply involved in broadcasting programs about the Fall armyworm itself to Malawians across the country with Farm Radio Trust — Farm Radio’s sister organization in Malawi. He was busy supporting radio programs promoting early detection and methods of combating the invasive species. Because of the lack of information about the new pest, farmers would pass on their own testimonials over the airwaves, sharing their own experiences about what worked and what didn’t to other farmers.
“The major challenge about Fall armyworm was that it was a new pest and farmers did not know what to do about it,” says Rex.
“Farmers were able to express themselves on how things are and our network of radio stations were able to move to different farms to check on the situation and call for action, which helped to speed up government’s response,” he says.
Still, finding the Fall armyworm on his own farm brought the issue into focus for Rex.
While Rex had the ability to deal with the pest on his own farm, the farms that circled him and were also infested didn’t.
In the end, Rex chose not to combat the Fall Armyworm and lost most of his maize to the hungry caterpillar.
“It really brought home how devastating this could be at the household level for farmers,” he says. “I can go and buy maize, but imagine if someone’s only source of maize was at the garden level.”
It’s for that reason Farm Radio continues to broadcast programs that transmit knowledge and broadcast farmers’ own solutions in combating the Fall armyworm..
Rex lost the majority of his maize crop this year, and has since moved to Tanzania to take up a new role with Farm Radio International. While the Fall armyworm is also an issue there, Rex has already started a new garden outside his house and has plans to start farming again soon — this time with a headstart on the hungry pest.
He’s also still hard at work on programs that can help other farmers take on the invasive species.