What do insects have to do with poverty or food insecurity?
We talk about strengthening water, land and ecosystems services, and about conserving resources for poverty alleviation and development. We also talk about education and infrastructure for the same reasons. But what do insects have to do with all of this? For most of us, insects could be something as small as an ant or a house fly. But in sub-Saharan Africa a certain insect is threatening the livelihoods of thousands of farmers.
The Tsetse fly (pronounced ‘sese’ or ‘setsey’), found only in the African continent, is a deadly, bloodsucking menace with a painful bite. There are 22 species of Tsetse fly, all of which carry the trypanosome parasite that causes diseases and death in animals and humans across 32 African countries. Human African Trypanosomosis (HAT) is commonly called sleeping sickness, and is transmitted to humans via the fly, as is African Animal Trypanosomosis (AAT), or ‘Nagana.’
Recent trends indicate less than 10,000 cases annually of HAT and even these numbers are now declining. AAT, however, continues to be a major problem with over 3 million deaths in cattle annually. Thus, crop production and land use in Africa are greatly affected because of the Tsetse fly. The flies are one of the main reasons why 80% of the continent’s land is still tilled by hand: the absence of draught power.
Fewer livestock also implies less availability of manure to be used as organic fertilizer, and consequently lower crop yields. Fear of contracting sleeping sickness makes farmers avoid Tsetse-infested areas, rendering much of Africa’s fertile landscape a ‘green desert’ – uninhabited and unused. It is estimated that monetary losses resulting from Trypanosomosis are US$ 6.5 billion a year for the African economy.
At the turn of the century, large areas of vegetation that harbored Tsetse breeding grounds were cleared. Fences were built to keep the cattle away from the wild animals that act as reservoir hosts of Trypanosomes. Sometimes these wild animals, such as hogs, were simply killed.
Control of Tsetse with synthetic insecticides over vast regions is not feasible and re-invasion remains a major problem. Frequent application of drugs for the treatment of Nagana is leading to ever-increasing problems with resistance in Trypanosomes.
Just when things look right at the end of the rope, the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) is stepping in with scientific research funded by the European Union.
“We identified repellents made out of odors of animals avoided by tsetse, like the waterbuck, a big antelope species that is common in tsetse-infested areas of eastern Africa but which is rarely fed on by the flies,” says Dr. Rajinder Kumar Saini, Principal Scientist of ICIPE and the Coordinator of the project.
According to Dr. Saini, the research is looking at both synthetic and organic repellent sources. Initially, they tested the repellents using a trap system–effective, but more or less useless to a highly mobile pastoral society like the Maasai. The solution was the groundbreaking repellent collar, which releases doses of the potent repellents from dispensers hung around the neck of the cow.
Dr. Saini says that with the use of the repellent collar disease incidence has reduced by nearly 90 percent. Kenyan farmers are able to plough more land thanks to the technology and the improved health of their livestock. “Previously these bulls were able to plough only one acre. Now they can plough about 3 acres of land per day,” he says.
Dr. Saini adds that the cattle are even showing 2 to 3 times better milk production than before, and the use of other veterinary drugs has reduced to a remarkable degree. Farmers are spending less on medicines and earning more from selling cattle at a healthy weight.
At the moment the cost of the prototype is about $5. “But once the collar gains popularity the price will drop,” says Dr. Saini. “We are overwhelmed by the demand for this collar and want to produce simple, cheaper dispensers and start introducing it in other African countries.” He adds that the Center is seeking commercial partners and industries to integrate the repellent collar into the commercial market.
With the success of the waterbuck collar for cattle, ICIPE is currently researching ways to address the human aspect of the disease as well as remedies for diseases cause by other insects.
Blogpost by Miuru Jayaweera, a social reporter for AASW6.