Drought tolerant maize hybrid to be ready end of the year

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In normal circumstances, only the most drought resistant of crops have a chance of flourishing in the blisteringly hot fields of Kiboko in Makindu District, where rain is more precious than diamond.

It is from this forsaken land that scientists have been experimenting with a new maize hybrid that requires less water and which they say may give Kenya an 18 per cent increase in annual yield.

Five years into the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (Wema) Project, the partners now report that by the end this year maize hybrid will be available for commercial planting in Kenya.

Started in 2008 and led by African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), Wema is a public-private partnership funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and USAid. It involves national research institutes in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.  Other partners are the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and Monsanto.

Researchers in the five African countries have been using conventional and advanced techniques, including marker-assisted breeding and genetic engineering to develop hybrids that use water more efficiently during moderate drought. Under moderate drought, the conventional and genetically engineered varieties are expected to increase yields by 20 to 35 per cent over current varieties.

 “This means an additional two million metric tons of maize will be available during drought years, to feed between 14 and 21 million people,” says Sylvester Oikeh of AATF.

In the bulk of maize growing areas of Kenya, the yield of maize ranges between 1.1 and 2.5 tonnes per hectare, with the yield being determined by factors such as availability of water and nutrients, and the presence of pests and diseases.

A recent study done by CIMMYT says that drought-tolerant maize can bring sub-Saharan Africa’s farmers cumulative economic benefits of nearly a billion dollars in the next five years.

Most maize in the developing world is grown under rain-fed conditions and with the proportion of maize grown in marginal areas increasing, breeding for tolerance to drought has become a major focus of research. It is estimated that every year, 24 million tons of maize are lost to drought.

The Wema field trials for the genetic engineering varieties are still going on under confined conditions.  The confined field trials - small, restricted experimental trials – are a precursor to regulatory approval and subsequent commercialisation.

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