Fall Armyworm keeps spreading and is becoming more destructive, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) warned in late June 2018. According to them, Fall Armyworm is entering more and more larger areas within countries in sub-Saharan Africa and becomes more destructive as it feeds on more crops and different parts of crops, increasingly growing an appetite for sorghum and millet, in addition to maize.
The pest first appeared in Africa in 2016, in West Africa. By today, it has quickly spread across sub-Saharan Africa, having already infested maize and sorghum fields across 44 countries in an area of more than 22 million square kilometres. Only ten countries (mostly in northern Africa) are not infested. Experts are concerned that the pest could spread to Northern Africa, Southern Europe and the Near East.
Smallholders, representing almost all of the tens of millions of maize farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, are worst affected by Fall Armyworm, and any further damage inflicted by the pest would have drastic consequences for their lives. For example, if 20 per cent of their annual maize yield was lost to Fall Armyworm, it would result in a deficit of 16 million tonnes of maize, worth nearly USD 5 billion.
A new talking app called Nuru to fight Fall Armyworm was launched by Pennsylvania State University and FAO in June 2018. It aims to help African farmers recognise Fall Armyworm so that they can take immediate steps to destroy it and curb its spread.
Many African farmers might have heard about Fall Armyworm but are seeing it for the first time, and are often unable to recognise it or are unsure of what they are facing. With the new application, they can hold the phone next to an infested plant, and Nuru can immediately confirm if Fall Armyworm has caused the damage.
Nuru is an app that uses cutting-edge technologies involving machine learning and artificial intelligence. It runs inside a standard Android phone and can also work offline. It complements FAO's recently launched Fall Armyworm Monitoring and Early Warning System (FAMEWS) mobile app, which builds knowledge on how and where the pest spreads, and what makes it less damaging.
Experts are working on new features to make Nuru an even more powerful ally against Fall Armyworm in the next months. Soon, in addition to English, Nuru will be able to speak to farmers in their own language, walking them through the process of checking their crops for Fall Armyworm, reporting back on infestation levels, and giving them advice on how to fight the pest. Nuru will speak Swahili, French and Twi and will be learning new languages all the time.
Nuru is currently inside the PlantVillage app, which is a free app built at Pennsylvania State University with FAO, CGIAR and other public institutions, and will soon be linked into FAO's FAMEWS app. Once the farmers get online, all the data will flow from FAMEWS, where the data is validated by national Fall Armyworm focal points, into a global web-based platform. The platform analyses data from across Africa to give a real-time situation overview with maps of Fall Armyworm infestations and the measures that were most effective in reducing its impact.