Region to benefit from $45M drought tolerant maize project

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By Ben Omondi

NAIROBI---Three East African Community (EAC) member states – Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania – are among five sub-Saharan Africa countries set to benefit from a five-year $ 49 million project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop maize varieties that can grow using less water.

The project, called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) was launched in 2008 and also covers Mozambique and South Africa. The project is developing and field testing drought-tolerant maize varieties before these can be eventually released to small-scale farmers in the target countries.

Dr James Gethi, a researcher with Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and WEMA Kenya coordinator said the project is scheduled to run in two five-year phases before the varieties could be released to farmers.

“The project is expected to lead to reduced maize seed prices for small-scale farmers as the breeding licenses for the drought-tolerance varieties has been negotiated by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) to enable selected seed breeding companies within the target countries to access the material on a royalty-free basis with the aim to maximize choice and access for smallholder farmers,” said Dr Gethi during a recent trip to the project’s trial site in Kiboko, about 100 kilometres from Nairobi.

All the five countries targeted by the WEMA project have maize as a staple crop for majority of the population but are faced with insufficient production challenges arising from drought, poor soils, pests and diseases.

Dr. Edward Nguu, a biochemistry lecturer at Kenya’s Nairobi University said that despite the other challenges, drought tolerance conferred to crops through biotechnology is viewed as the most important trait that will be commercialized in future, because it is by far the single most important constraint to increased productivity for crops worldwide. 

“Currently, there are enormous challenges associated with climate change and increased frequency and severity of droughts globally has resulted in a significant decrease in global food production. Agriculture uses 70 per cent of all the fresh water in the world and competition for water between people and crops is expected to intensify,” said Dr Nguu.

In Kenya for instance, maize is a staple food with up to 125 kilogrammes per capita consumption and accounts for about 40 per cent of people’s calorie requirement.

“Kenya has a total production of 2.3 million tons, with about 70-80 per cent of maize being produced by small-scale farmers. On-farm yields are very low at 0.8 tons per hectare while on-station yields are significantly higher at 4.6 tons per hectare,” said Dr Gethi, adding that there has been a 2 per cent increase in production against a population growth of over 3 per cent, leading Kenya to be a net maize importer.

The first varieties from the project, which also includes Monsanto and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) who are providing the germplasm and breeding biotechnology, could be available by 2017 after relevant from each of the specific countries have certified the material for mass planting.

Before the material is released for mass planting however, the national agriculture research facilities in the five countries – including Kenya’s KARI and Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO) – have to test the efficacy of the WEMA-developed varieties at trial sites.

Apart from WEMA, other initiatives aimed to develop improved maize varieties for sub-Saharan Africa include the Insect Resistant Maize for Africa (IRMA) for insect-pest tolerance and Improved Maize for Africa Soils (IMAS) meant to address poor soil challenges for farmers.  

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