Read full article by Sebastien Malo @reutors.com
BORGO BERI, Niger (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In the West African country of Niger, millet is said to be the king of grains – the cereal crop preferred by all farmers. And the king of millet in the southern town of Borgo Beri is indisputably farmer Hassane Hima.
Given the title by his peers, a tradition in Niger, he wears it with pride. “Millet is what people grow most,” he said.
But two years ago, Hima’s supremacy was threatened when a minuscule worm began chomping on the area’s millet fields with a giant appetite.
The caterpillar, known as the “millet head miner”, is an old foe in this part of the world. But observers say it may have proliferated over the last few years due to increasingly common droughts tied to climate change.
In response, residents of Borgo Beri and other villages listened and set to work when global aid agency Catholic Relief Services (CRS) proposed a solution they had not heard of.
The method, dating from 1997, is simple enough: the minute Habrobracon hebetor wasp, a natural enemy of the millet worm, is released and lays its eggs on the caterpillar, which is devoured once the wasps hatch.
It is making a fast comeback as the millet head miner threat has grown, with this project and at least one other led by local non-profit Union Haraybane Tera Mooriben supplementing government efforts to grow and spread the wasp.
Chemical alternatives to fight off the pest exist but are inefficient and costly, said Madougou Garba, who heads insect studies at Niger’s General Directorate of Plant Protection.
Each year, more than 2 million hectares (5 million acres) of millet crops nationwide are vulnerable to the pest, said Garba.
Hima keeps his prized millet crop within earshot – his 6 hectares face his sizeable walled-off adobe home where 13 mouths – two wives and 11 children – depend on the harvest to put food in their stomachs.
But a poor rainy season made 2017 a particularly good year for the pest, said Salifou Ousmane, head of agriculture for the department of Balleyara, which covers Borgo Beri.
“It signals to this caterpillar, ‘I’ve got to start working, I’ve got to start thinking about preparing for posterity’,” he said.
For millet king Hima, 57, it was frightening.
His harvest plummeted from as much as 2,750 kg (6,000 lb) of millet to 550 kg. The proud farmer had to sell nearly all his sheep and cows to buy a season’s worth of the grain, typically imported from neighboring Benin.
It is “very likely” that intensifying droughts could explain the pests’ propagation, the two being typically tied in the region, said Amadou Mahamadou Laouali, an agronomist at CRS who said he was not aware of any studies on the topic.
In Balleyara, precipitation has halved since the 1980s, according to local authorities.