The Desert Locust (Schistocerca gregaria) has joined the list of the myriad of challenges and disasters the world has faced in 2020. It only comes second to the Covid – 19 pandemic. It is unfortunate that there is little to no mainstream media attention directed toward a disaster that is slowly but steadily sweeping through the East African region right under our noses. So far, five out of eight East African countries have been affected. While Egypt in North Africa and Yemen in the middle East have also not been spared according to FAO’s ‘Desert Locust situation update’ on 12th November 2020. Needless to say, the threat to the region’s food security is very real. Aerial spraying efforts using aircrafts alone are not enough to control the breeding and subsequent migration (hopping) of these swarms. Drone technology start up Astral Aerial is stepping in as a supplementary technology to increase control effectiveness. So far, to use drones curbing the desert locust disaster, drone technology has been piloted in both Kenya and Ethiopia to access areas that are inaccessible to aircrafts and carry out targeted spot control spraying exercises.

In Samburu, a county in North Western Kenya, the Astral team partnered with CABI, on a UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development (FCDO) funded project through the Frontier Technologies Hub. The spraying exercise targeted roosting populations of small swarms that are not feasible to spray by other means like aircrafts, or vehicle mounted sprayers. Each drone has a payload capacity of 16 liters and can cover up 10 hectares an hour. The drone’s ability to hover above spraying sites enables spot spraying atop trees, precise spraying in agricultural or inhabited areas and areas with difficult terrain that were unsuitable for aircrafts. Following the spraying exercise, the team carried out post spraying survey flights to accurately measure and record the area covered as well as analyze the characteristic features in the area associated with desert locust infestation. 

In Ethiopia, Astral Aerial, through the ministry of Agriculture and Ethiopian Airlines, has so far sprayed over 1,600 ha of desert locust infested area in Jijiga, where more immature swarms are reported to be present between Jijiga and Degeh Bur, according to FAO’s desert locust situation update. This was in an effort to supplement aerial spraying via aircrafts. Again, spot spraying of roosting swarms proved much more effective to control than hopper swarms during their migration. In addition to effectively targeting the swarms, the drones were easily transported across the difficult terrain enabling quick and easy movement over long distances for roosting site location.

We have just scratched the surface on the potential for complete eradication of this problem. However, we need to pull together all available response efforts, from aircrafts, to drone technology, to ground control efforts; in order to salvage what is left of our food security, before we add acute food shortages to our list of challenges in 2020.