Tackling Plant Epidemics using early warning systems

The end to the ongoing scarcity of tomatoes may be in sight and Nigerians can finally breathe a sigh of relief, as researchers say that a pesticide capable of killing a species of moth that has ravaged the crop. Some weeks back, Nigerians woke up to the news of the destruction of the tomatoes value chain in six states of the country, namely Jigawa, Kano, Katsina, Kaduna, Plateau and Lagos; by a moth, Tuta Absoluta or Tomato Leaf Miner, locally called Tomato Ebola. The moth attacks the leaves of the tomato plant, and larvae produced by the moth feeds voraciously on the plants causing a 100 percent loss in yield. This led to scarcity of tomatoes which are a central ingredient in many Nigerian dishes and very much part of the diet wit the price of a basket of tomatoes soaring from $1.20 (£0.80) three months ago to more than $40; this also meant so many Nigerians couldn’t afford it.

According to Daniel Manzo Maigari, Kaduna state’s commissioner for agriculture, some 200 farmers in the state have collectively lost more than $5m over the past month in. The governor of the state, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, is quoted as saying that 80 percent of Kaduna’s tomato production was destroyed declared a tomato state of emergency in the sector. Kaduna state is deemed by the U.N. to be the tomato capital of Nigeria.

The insect allegedly invaded Nigeria from Niger republic and because of the lack of knowledge about it, or even containment measures that could have been taken, the disease spread like wildfire, leaving huge losses for tomato farmers in its wake. According to the Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh, “the highly reproductive nature of the tomato pest coupled with the favorable environment and lack of management knowledge for containment resulted in its spread like a wild fire without any challenge. This development had led to the destruction of tomato fruits in Nigeria.”

Now, the Nigeria’s National Research Institute for Chemical Technology says it has found a solution – a pesticide which will kill off the moth. However, according to a BBC report, affected farmers would have to wait as the new pesticide is not commercially available yet. This is a welcome development. But much of this could have been averted using an early warning system.

It is a fact that crop pests and diseases are migratory in nature. For example, the pest Tuta Absoluta is said to have originated in the Tomato farms of South America. From there, it spread rapidly; one tomato producing country after another. When it enters a territory where it hasn’t been before, knowledge as well as chemicals for their containment would be very scarce. However, if there is an early warning system in place that can help identify the incident of a crop disease in some few farms before it hits the level of an epidemic, the damage it would do can be minimized. Its spread can therefore be curtailed effectively.

That is one of the solutions that the Kitovu Mobile Platforms brings; an early warning system that farmers can use to alert other farmers, research institutes, ministries of agriculture and other ecosystem stakeholders on diseases and pests that affect them. This would ensure that a solution can be found and dispatched in a timely fashion to farmers and so minimize widespread destructions.

With the Kitovu platforms, farmers are linked to federal and state ministries of agriculture, research institutes, meteorological stations, extension agents as well as Kitovu Knowledge Management Center. As soon as they notice any anomaly, they can immediately alert them and ask for help; which is provided to farmers speedily in real time. Beyond that, farmers can also ask for advice on the best inputs or herbicides to tackle very stubborn weeds and can receive information on the availability of improved varieties, ask for advice on the best time to plant considering changing climate, or even agricultural best practices from research institutes. That way, the agricultural ecosystem can be made very sustainable and losses in the proportion caused by Tomato Ebola can be forestalled. The net winner is Nigerians!