By Opija Raduk

The invasion of apple snail in Kenya’s rice-growing regions could have disastrous consequences for rice production and food security across Africa.

A recent study led by the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) warns.

The apple snail, native to South America, has become one of the top five complaints among farmers in the region with the study showing that the pest is reducing rice yields by up to 14% and net rice income by up to 60% in areas with moderate infestation (less than 20% of cultivated area affected).

The researchers stress that it is “essential” that strategies to limit the spread of apple snail are rapidly implemented. This includes raising awareness, outreach and capacity building at all levels of the farming system.

With approximately 300,000 small-scale farmers involved in rice cultivation in Kenya, the Mwea Irrigation Scheme in Kirinyaga County contributes 80-88% of the country’s rice production.

As rice consumption is expected to reach 1,292,000 tons by 2030, the crop has been prioritized in Kenya’s National Agriculture Investment Plan (NAIP 2018-2028) and National Rice Development Strategy-2 (2019-2030) to ensure food security and socio-economic development.

“Rice farmers in Mwea face various challenges, including water shortages, rice blast attacks, high input costs, low land productivity, machinery shortages, bird damage, poor infrastructure, and a lack of resilient and acceptable rice varieties,” Kate Constantine, Project scientist at CABI.

“The recent introduction of apple snail has added to these challenges, posing a serious threat to rice production in the region and potentially across Africa.”

Fernadis Makale, a co-author of the study, revealed that a Multi-Institutional Technical Team (MITT) has been established to lead management efforts and provide advice to farmers on effectively managing the pest.

“The negative impacts will only increase over time as apple snail continues to spread. It is a call for urgent action. There is a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity for potential containment, or possibly even eradication before apple snail becomes widespread in Kenya, and the only feasible option will become management, with its associated high economic, livelihood and environmental costs,” Makale said.

The invasion of the apple snail has led farmers to resort to increased chemical use and costly labor to physically remove egg masses and snails, adding to existing challenges faced by rice farmers, such as water shortages, rice blast attacks, and high input costs.

If left unchecked, the spread of the apple snail could not only devastate rice production in Mwea but also threaten other regions, such as Ahero near Lake Victoria, endangering rice production in Tanzania and Uganda. Furthermore, Kenya’s progress towards rice self-sufficiency would be undermined, causing serious food security implications.

The researchers urge immediate action to contain or eradicate the apple snail before it becomes widespread, as managing the pest afterward would incur substantial economic, livelihood, and environmental costs. Time is of the essence to safeguard rice production and protect the livelihoods of small-scale farmers in Kenya and beyond.