How researchers are taming drought in Dodoma

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By JAMES MPINGA recently in Dodoma, 29th September 2011 @ 16:00, Total Comments: 0, Hits: 637

AT a remote research centre in Dodoma, villagers recently brought down huge cobs of corn right in the middle of September, the most unlikely place and time for any crop harvests let alone maize.

The story line at that rare occasion was that it’s possible to have a healthy crop yield even in the sun-fried soils of Makotupora, some 27km to the North of the capital city, Dodoma. Maize has remained an officially ‘banned’ crop for many years within Tanzania’s great central plateau, which is home to Dodoma, Singida, Shinyanga and parts of Manyara and Tabora regions because of severe and recurrent drought spells.

And for years, farmers in these areas have been bombarded with messages that they better stick to cultivating millet, sorghum and legumes than incur losses from dismal maize yields under drought conditions -- even though most families prefer local dishes made out of maize flour – notably ‘ugali’.

But there are promising signs of bringing back maize dishes to the family table, thanks to a new regional project, Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), which is currently being implemented in five countries along with Tanzania – Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique and South Africa.

The farmers at Makotupora told researchers during a brief harvest ceremony that they, too, would love to reap the benefits from having access to superior seeds being developed next to their own poor crops.

Apparently, this was just among rare occasions in many years that the farmers had shared ideas under the same roof within the research facility and many of them expressed open willingness to learn more from each other.

“Many of us were afraid of coming in here … we often thought that you people (researchers) were up to no good intentions … so we feared coming near this place…,” one of the village leaders said. His fears were shared by many others who thought the research facility was out of bounds for them.

“But now this research project is opening doors … the new seeds under development will truly liberate the farmers of Dodoma,” another farmer concurred. Unknown to most farmers at Makotupora, the WEMA project is, in fact, a ‘partnership’ that supports the development and promotion of policies and regulations to ensure the safety and effectiveness of agricultural products for farmers, consumers, and the environment.

Across Africa, most farmers spend many hours labouring in the fields and all too often see that labour thwarted by drought. By improving the drought tolerance of the seed they plant and tend, this project could increase the reliability of their harvests – and such greater yield stability under drought conditions would improve the livelihood of poor farmers and bring significant benefits to them and their families.

The ceremonial harvest at Makotupora on September 15, 2011 was the culmination of an elaborate process. Dubbed ‘Participatory Evaluation’, the scientists sought to gather the opinions of the villagers about the performance of some 50 varieties of carefully selected seed varieties planted on April 21, 2011.

In fact, the crop was ready for harvesting two months before (since July 13, 2011) but was held up pending consultations with village leaders on the best possible dates for the big event; overall, it had taken the crop some 113 days to mature.

During moderate drought, the new varieties are expected to increase yields compared to maize without this form of drought tolerance. If the project succeeds, the increase in yields would translate into two million additional tonnes of food harvested during drought years.

That means 14 to 21 million people in the five countries we are targeting would have more to eat and sell. If the technology spreads to five additional countries, the number of people benefiting would go up to 40 million. The countries participating in the project are represented by their national agricultural research systems (NARS) who are contributing their expertise in breeding, field testing, seed multiplication, and distribution.

In Tanzania, the Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH) is coordinating all activities under WEMA. On its part, Tanzania has chosen the drought-prone Makotupora for its confined field trials away from the nearest local maize fields.

At the regional level, the WEMA project recognizes the need for appropriate safety assessments and is providing assistance in specific countries as they establish formal processes for scientific-based safety assessment and regulatory review.

The national agricultural systems of Mozambique, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, who are all WEMA partners, are able to participate in the project due to the progress their countries have made in developing functioning scientific-based biosafety laws and regulatory systems.

The WEMA partners are building capacity in each of the five member countries for all necessary scientific testing, including protocols to evaluate new drought-tolerant maize and good agronomic practices to ensure compliance with regulatory conditions.

All WEMA project activities comply with established national laws and regulatory procedures governing plant breeding, variety registration and biosafety. Ideally, maize requires up to 1000mm of rainfall, making Dodoma region as a whole (500-600mm) a poor candidate for growing the crop.

But lead researcher Barnabas Kiula says modern biotechnology, particularly agricultural biotechnology (read GMO) could change all that. And, maize is Tanzania’s choice crop to prove it.

Click here to view article on Daily News, Tanzania

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