First of all, we considered the Local Context of the locust crisis to keep in mind who we innovate for: people in agriculture living in Northern Africa, the Arabian peninsula and South-Asia that were affected by desert locust swarms. To prevent our solution from solving symptoms instead of the real underlying problem, a Root-Cause Analysis was conducted. We discovered that not the farmers, but the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and national governments perform locust control operations. Therefore, our customers are the FAO and national governments, instead of people from affected areas. We obtained an understanding of the need of the customers for a safe and fast alternative to current pesticides, which is described in Customer Needs.

Local Context

The current desert locust upsurge affects 10% of the world population [1]. By eating thousands of hectares of cropland and vegetation, these insects threaten the food security and economic stability of millions of people in Northern Africa, the Arabian peninsula and Southwest Asia. In countries affected by desert locusts swarms, agriculture amounts to a large portion of the economic output [2]. Therefore, people living from agriculture output are the largest group of people that are directly affected. This section aims to investigate their context and identify their needs.

Figure 1. Mwende standing in between her crops in East-Africa © Greenpeace / Paul Basweti
Figure 2. Mwende trying to rid her land of locusts by banging a large metal sheet © Greenpeace / Paul Basweti
Figure 3. Farmer trying to scare locusts off his land © Greenpeace / Paul Basweti

For those who are close to or below the poverty line, the crisis is an urgent problem as they do not have many, if any, reserves to deal with setbacks. Matters are even worse because of Covid-19. The longer the crisis is left uncontested, the larger the fraction of population that is pushed under the poverty line.

Currently, a day in the life of a farmer in East-Africa or in a locust infested area is grim [3]. Mwende is one of these farmers (Figure 1) and was interviewed by Greenpeace [4]. She is a smallholder from Eastern Kenya and grows her crops on a three-acre plot of land. As a seasoned farmer, Mwende has been able to rely on successful harvests to pay for her children’s school fees, and provide a sustainable livelihood for herself and her family. This was before a swarm of locusts invaded her farm. For three consecutive days, she was forced to put all work on hold and try to chase the locusts away from her crops. She walked around her farm swinging an old iron sheet in an effort to rid her farm of the ferocious pests (Figure 2). With each swarm consisting of 50 to 100 billion insects, their attempts are often in vain (Figure 3). If a local farmer's crops have been attacked, they often do not know how to recover from the damage left behind. In an interview with the Africa News, one farmer was quoted saying that "If the locusts had come later when the crops were ready at least I could have harvested some food for my family. That would have been more bearable. Now I don't know what to do." This farmer relied on his yearly harvest for everything, without it he would lose the life he has worked so hard to build [5].

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs [6], having sufficient food is the most basic need that exists, together with having access to adequate and safe shelter, and having clean drinking water. People's desires are usually linked to their needs, so if someone does not have adequate nutrition, they will desire proper food and will likely live on a day-to-day basis. The farmers’ personal basic needs and those of their families must be met for them to be able to fulfill their higher needs. Their main concern will be constricted to basic survival. Thus, the affected people need a solution for the locusts that pose a threat to their basic need of food security.

Root-Cause Analysis

For PHOCUS to be a good solution to the problem, it is crucial to have a thorough understanding of the problem and potentially different perspectives thereof. To achieve this, we have spoken to many different stakeholders (such as locust control experts from a.o. the FAO, scientists in the field of (tropical) entomology, toxicology and ecology, and a pesticide producer that is an official supplier of chemical pesticides against locusts of the FAO). Using the insights we got from these interviews, we performed a root-cause analysis with the goal of identifying the problem underlying the locust crisis. This is important as it helps to focus on the real underlying problem instead of the symptoms.

At the start of the root-cause analysis, we formulated the initial problem statement as "The upsurge of desert locusts threatens the livelihood of millions of people around the globe" (Figure 4). Three different threats to people's livelihood were identified: the threat locusts pose to food security, health and economic stability.

Figure 4. Root-cause analysis of the locust crisis.

Threat to food security

The first threat to people’s livelihood results from humans and their livestock suffering from hunger as the desert locusts eat the farmers' crops. This happens because the desert locusts are swarming in large numbers, migrating from place to place to eat a lot of vegetation, and reproducing fast.

The development of desert locust swarms was enabled by an environmental trigger: a series of cyclones that hit the Arabic Peninsula in 2018 and 2019. The occurrence of these cyclones brought a lot of rain to this area, which led to a sudden boom in vegetation in this otherwise dry landscape. Many desert locusts, which are otherwise harmless solitary insects, are lured to the same place for food. Upon seeing, smelling and touching each other's hind legs, the production of neurotransmitter serotonin is triggered. This production starts a cascade of altered gene expressions, which leads to polyphenism: the locust goes from the solitary to the gregarious phase by becoming smaller, changing color, adopting grouping behavior and eating, reproducing and migrating more. The environmental trigger thus initiates a self-reinforcing cycle that only halts when there is not enough food left, and the locusts either die or switch back to the solitary phase. There is some debate going on about whether the environmental conditions that trigger the development of locust swarms are more frequent due to climate change. Some interviewees argue that this series of cyclones is extremely rare and is a result of climate change. In addition, the area in which the locusts are able to spread has become bigger because these locations have become more dry. Others argued that, although the current upsurge is the largest one in almost 25 years, the frequency and area in which the locusts have spread has not changed. According to them, when and where the environmental conditions are just right is subjected to chance.

The reason why the desert locust swarms have gotten the opportunity to get as large as they are is because preventative measures were not taken sufficiently. The current upsurge was developed in a remote and difficult to access area in Yemen. This area has not received sufficient attention from the national government due to the armed conflict and political unrest. This led to a situation where the FAO estimated that three generations of desert locusts were able to breed unnoticed. Also, in areas that are susceptible to locust plagues, locust control operations can be hampered due to rigid layers of bureaucracy and corruption. In addition, no safe emergency response against desert locust swarms is in place. The biopesticide Metarhizium anisopliae specifically targets the desert locust and is safe for other humans and animals. However, when giant swarms are getting increasingly bigger, it is too slow-acting to surpass the desert locusts' reproduction rate.

Threat to health

The second reason why people's livelihoods are being threatened by the desert locust upsurge is because humans and animals may develop health issues from current pest control methods. Predominantly, chemical pesticides are being used to tackle the locusts. These chemical pesticides affect the nervous system of not only locusts, but also beneficial insects, animals and potentially humans. It is being distributed using planes, vehicles and people on the ground. The spraying of chemical pesticides is especially dangerous for people on the ground. One interviewee mentioned that these people may not wear proper protection, and therefore, directly get in contact with this toxic substance. Regular people and animals also get in contact with the chemical pesticides through eating the crops. In addition, food deprived people will not hesitate to eat locusts, which is a good source of salts and proteins, even though they have been killed using toxic chemicals.

Threat to economic stability

A final cause of threat to the livelihood of people that are being affected by locusts is due to a rise in crime, involuntary prostitution and violence. This is a result of huge financial losses that follow the devastation of cropland. In invasion areas of the Desert locust, many people are farmers or highly dependent on local agriculture for food. When there is no money left to feed themselves or their children, people will turn to crime out of desperation. It should be noted that this does not necessarily occur in all invasion areas of locusts.

Customer Needs

Current Methods on the Market

Current control tools for desert locust control available in the market are chemical and biopesticides (Figure 5). These pesticides are sprayed in ultra-low volumes on areas from the ground, vehicles, planes and helicopters.

Figure 5. Advantages and disadvantages of current pesticides against locusts.

Chemical Pesticides

The chemical pesticides that are being applied against locust swarms are organophosphates, neonicotinoids and pyrethroids [7].

Advantages of using chemicals are:

  • Effectiveness in killing the desert locusts Chemical pesticides generally induce the desired "knock-down" effect very quickly. For some, this takes around 30 minutes.
  • Stability in conditions of high temperature and high doses of UV radiation Locusts generally live under environmental conditions of high temperature and UV radiation. Compared to biopesticides, chemicals are stable under these conditions.

Nevertheless, major downsides to its use exist:

  • Not specific and also kill, for instance, beneficial insects
  • Adversely affects the ecosystem
  • The insects that are killed by chemical pesticides play important roles in the nutrient cycle and plant productivity [8].
  • Harmful for the health of humans and their livestock

When chemical pesticides are being applied as an emergency response to increasing swarms, people that apply the pesticides may be insufficiently trained and/or wear inadequate protection. Also, when people are food deprived, they turn to using locusts as food or as feed for their livestock. In this way, chemical pesticides are ingested by both animal and human.

  • Cannot be applied everywhere
  • Chemical pesticides are prohibited to be applied in environmentally sensitive areas, such as national parks. When locusts start swarming there, spraying this would not be an option.
  • Difficult to dispose of

As an emergency response, countries buy too large amounts of chemical pesticides. As locust plagues only occur periodically, this leaves these countries with an excess in chemical pesticides. The disposal of these chemicals is difficult, costly and polluting.


In recognition of the environmental and health issues related to the use of chemical pesticides against locusts, since the 1990s, efforts have been put into developing a biopesticide. This has been shown to be very difficult. The only biopesticide that has been demonstrated to be effective and has been approved for locust control to date is the entomopathogenic fungus Metarhizium acridum, or "Green Muscle". This specialist pathogen of locusts and grasshoppers acts by infecting the locust, spreading through its body and starving it to death [9]. The use of this biopesticide for locust control efforts also has some advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of using Green Muscle for locust control:

  • Does not impose harm on health of other beings beside locusts
  • Green Muscle is specific to locusts.
  • Environmentally-friendly
  • The ecosystem will not be disturbed by the killing of beneficial insects that play a key role in nutrient cycling and plant productivity. Not harmful for the health of humans and their livestock.
  • Biodegradable, no issue in waste disposal
  • As Green Muscle is a fungus, it will degrade more quickly than a chemical. Therefore, the disposal of excess Green Muscle is not problematic.
  • Can be applied everywhere

Where chemical pesticides are prohibited to be applied in environmentally sensitive areas, such as national parks, biopesticides are allowed to be applied everywhere.

Disadvantages of applying this biopesticide:

  • Slow-acting
  • It takes 7-14 days to induce the desired "knock-down" effect. This rate is sufficient when the biopesticide is being used to prevent the development of desert locust swarms. However, it is too slow to be applied in cases of emergency: when swarms are increasingly expanding in size. These emergency situations are inevitable, as some areas where locust swarms develop are inaccessible and therefore, preventative measures cannot sufficiently be taken. Efforts have been put into improving the lethality of Green Muscle without any success.
  • Poor stability in high temperatures and UV radiation
  • Compared to chemical pesticides, biopesticides are more prone to damage as a result of high temperatures and high doses of UV radiation, which are common environmental conditions for locusts. The desert locust takes advantage of this: when it senses that it has been infected, it gets a "behavioral fever". The locust turns its body in a particular angle towards the sun to increase its temperature and exposure to UV radiation to kill the biopesticide. In many cases, this significantly reduces the functionality of the biopesticide.


Chemical pesticides have the advantage of being effective and stable under the right conditions, while the biopesticide Green Muscle is specific, not harmful for other beings or the environment, biodegradable and can be applied everywhere. When taking sufficient preventative measures, the use of Green Muscle to hamper locust swarm development is sufficient. However, these preventative measures are very difficult to coordinate over multiple countries in Africa and Asia, and some areas in which locust swarm development occurs are even inaccessible. Moreover, a lack of urgency to take these measures disappears over time when locust swarms become less prevalent. Hence, it is almost inevitable that emergency situations of increasingly expanding locust swarms that eat all cropland on their way remain occurring. When this happens, the threat to food security and economic stability outweighs the threat to the ecosystem and to the health of humans and animals. Therefore, people reach out to chemical pesticides. In conclusion, the FAO and national governments are in immediate need of an alternative to current chemical and biopesticides that reduces the swarms quickly and does not affect any other being than the desert locust.