In recent years, pilotless flying vehicles, or UAVs, are being put to an ever-increasing range of uses – from land mapping and crop surveillance to monitoring endangered species, providing spectacular panoramic shots for film and journalistic purposes, and even delivering pizzas in dense urban settings. It now seems that they could even help harassed African farmers win their war against one of the continent’s most hated crop pests, according to researchers from the African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET).
Farmers across Africa’s savannah belt say that of all the pests that they have had to contend with, the one they hate the most is the quelea bird. It is called the ‘feathered locust’ and can devastate whole crops over areas up to 1 000 hectares.
The voracious red-billed birds appear in vast, sky-blacking numbers. The nomadic flocks can grow to millions of birds, making the quelea not only the most numerous bird species in the world, but also the most destructive.
They swoop down on grass fields to feed on their favourite wild seeds, but do not spare cultivated fields, particularly of millet and sorghum. On average, a bird can eat 10 grams of grain a day; so a flock of two million birds can devour as much as 20 tons of grain in a single day.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that given its adult breeding population of around 1.5 billion, the quelea causes agricultural loses of around $50 million annually.
ACET’s researchers found that in Kenya and Uganda, farmers have to try and protect their crops against the birds for about two months. Currently they use catapults to mount counter attacks and generate loud noises to try and scare away their unwanted guests. Children normally carried this out, but since most now go to school, farmers have had to pay others to help them safeguard their crops. This adds to the cost of cultivating crops such as sorghum and millet.
The menace from the birds has been so intense that it is forcing many farmers to change their traditional patterns. Many of them are now abandoning millet and sorghum in favour of crops such as maize, which are less vulnerable to attacks from the birds.
However, increased reliance on maize, which is very vulnerable to lack of water, has increased food insecurity in the region and is the reason why the region suffers from periodic food shortages – which is largely due to failure of maize crops.
Millett and sorghum are drought resistant and are well suited to the regions agro-ecological condition. Indeed, millet was first domesticated by humans in East Africa, while maize was brought by the Portuguese. However, help may be on the way from an unexpected source – specially modified drones* could well be the answer to the farmers’ prayers. Drones made in the shape and size of birds of prey such as eagles or hawks or which emit sounds that frighten the quelea, may provide the solution that has evaded farmers for generations. ACET and the US-based RAND organisation are evaluating the potential of using such drones to help African farmers win their war against ‘the most hated bird in the world’.
Information for this piece came from ACET’s (African Centre for Economic Transformation) recently completed five-country study on Promoting Sustainable Rural Development and Transformation in Africa. This topic is open for research in the modern labs across the world (and a role for Singapore scientists going forward).
The ACET is an Accra-based economic policy institute supporting long-term growth with transformation of Africa’s economies. Founded by K.Y. Amoako, former Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, ACET has roughly 30 core staff from every sub-region of the continent, including Burkina Faso, DR Congo, Ghana, Kenya, and Morocco. See more at acetforafrica.org.