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Children face hunger as locust plague sweeps through Africa

As the world moves to fight the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of children in Africa are going hungry as a locust plague destroys crops.

Swarms of desert locusts have been wreaking havoc on tens of thousands of hectares of farmland and pastures in Kenya, since arriving from Somalia and Ethiopia in December 2019.

It is the largest locust invasion in Kenya in 25 years. Farming families have been left devastated, struggling to feed their children and earn a living.

Five-year-old Mary, who lives in a disadvantaged community in Samburu County, says she is hungry “most of the time” because of the plague.

Since the locust invasion the lunchtime meals served at her school are no longer enough to keep her full throughout the day. Teachers and school co-ordinators have been forced to reduce the size of lunches because of fears of further food shortages as a result of the swarms of locusts destroying farmland.

Goat’s milk, a highly nutritious drink for children, has also become scarce in schools, increasing the risk of young students like Mary becoming malnourished.

At home, Mary’s situation is no better. Her parents rely on the sale of aloe vera plants to feed their five children and ensure they can go to school.

But the locust plague in recent months has destroyed their aloe vera crops, says Mary’s father Paul.

“With aloe vera we would be able to make US$1 daily and use it to buy some food for the children, but now we have nothing,” Paul says. “Life is really tough.”

Mary (dressed in purple), pictured with her family, says the locusts have destroyed the wild fruits she used to eat when there was no food at home. “Now my siblings and I go hungry most of the time,” Mary says.

Usually, when there is no food at home, Mary and her siblings would go foraging for wild fruits but the locusts have also destroyed these. “Now my siblings and I go hungry most of the time,” Mary says.

“Even the trees where we always play after school no longer have shade because the leaves were all eaten by locusts.”

The desert locust is considered one of the most dangerous migratory pests in the world. A small swarm – consisting of 40 million locusts – can eat the same amount of food that 35,000 people eat in a day.

Devastating impact on livelihoods

Single mother of five, Natalie, in Kenya’s Samburu County, depends on her tribe of goats and flock of sheep for income and for milk for her children.

She is devasted about the impact the locusts have had on her family.

“I worked hard to buy these goats and sheep,” she says. “I try my best to feed them well and treat them whenever they are sick.

“My children also know the value of livestock and help me take care of them.”

Natalie (centre), pictured with one of her children and ChildFund Kenya staff member, says locusts have eaten through the pastures where her livestock used to graze.

It used to only be a five-kilometre walk to reach pastures where her goats and sheep could graze, but now it’s a 20-kilometre walk before Natalie can find enough vegetation to feed her livestock.

The desert locust is considered one of the most dangerous migratory pests in the world. One locust can travel about 150km and a small swarm – consisting of 40 million locusts – can eat the same amount of food that 35,000 people eat in a day.

Natalie says her goats are producing less milk because of the need to walk longer to find food.

Waterholes have also been polluted with locust droppings. “Sometimes we come back with thirsty animals because they are not able to drink,” says Natalie.

Kenya is experiencing the largest locust invasion in 25 years. Farming families have been left devastated, struggling to feed their children and earn a living.

What is ChildFund doing?

The fight against the locusts has been hit by a shortage of pesticides following the suspension of flights worldwide in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the help of supporters, ChildFund Kenya is helping to distribute food and water to affected children and families, as well as water storage tanks and water purification tablets. Food and water will be available in early childhood development centres supported by ChildFund to ensure young children do not go hungry and can continue their education.

ChildFund is also working closely with community members on how to keep children safe during emergencies such as the current locust plague, and farming families will receive training on animal husbandry and disease prevention.

Community meetings and training sessions will be implemented by ChildFund for county government officers on how to manage the locust infestation, including the use of early warning detection systems to prevent future emergencies.

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