WEMA Report - May 2012

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The Water Efficient Maize for Africa project makes progress in developing new drought-tolerant maize varieties to improve productivity, food security and livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa


In March, the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project celebrated its fourth year anniversary. WEMA is a public-private partnership with the goal of helping smallholder farmers and their families in Sub-Saharan Africa improve their maize production by mitigating the risk of drought.

Maize is the most widely grown staple crop in Africa – more than 300 million people in Africa depend on it as their main food source – and it is severely affected by frequent drought. It is estimated that drought in Sub-Saharan Africa causes yield losses of 10-25 percent on average.

“When recurrent droughts in Sub-Saharan Africa ruin harvests that people depend on, lives and livelihoods are also threatened and even destroyed,” said Dr. Stephen Mugo, Principal Scientist and Maize Breeder with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT). “Developing and distributing drought-tolerant maize varieties in Sub-Saharan Africa can help reduce vulnerability for smallholder farmers, and increase their food security.”

Over the last four years, the project has successfully conducted breeding and testing programs in the five countries where it’s working: Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.

In 2012, the project submitted 16 conventional drought-tolerant maize varieties into the National Performance Trials (NPT) in Kenya. These trials, conducted by the Kenyan Government, are used to determine the suitability of these new varieties to Kenya’s growing conditions. Other countries in the WEMA project are expected to start national evaluations of WEMA conventional varieties this year.

“It is expected that farmers in Kenya will be able to plant the first drought-tolerant varieties from the project’s conventional breeding work as early as 2014,” said Dr. James Gethi, Maize Breeder with Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and WEMA Kenya Lead.

“The WEMA project provides us with an opportunity to deliver to farmers varieties that can perform better under moderate drought than varieties currently on the market,” stated Dr. Justin Rakotoarisaona, Secretary General of the African Seed Traders Association (AFSTA). “This is very encouraging considering the number of maize farmers adversely affected by droughts in Africa.”

The project has also made progress in the development of transgenic drought-tolerant maize varieties with the third year of trials in progress in Kenya and Uganda and the fourth year in progress in South Africa. According to Dr. Francis Nang’ayo, the Regulatory Affairs Manager, African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), Mozambique and Tanzania are working towards securing regulatory approvals to conduct similar transgenic trials.

“Increasing yields under moderate drought could mean an additional two million tonnes of maize during drought years that could feed 14 to 21 million people,” stated Dr. Sylvester Oikeh, the WEMA Project Manager.

Like drought, insects - particularly stem borers - present a challenge to smallholder farmers in Sub–Saharan Africa, as they have little to no resources to effectively manage them. This can have a negative impact on yields, particularly during times of drought, according to Dr. Tadele Tefera, Maize Entomologist, CIMMYT Kenya. In a country like Kenya, this can translate into an average yield loss of up to 400,000 tonnes of maize per year.

“During the first four years of research, the problem of insect pressure was identified as a threat to the anticipated benefits of drought-tolerant maize varieties,” said Dr. Oikeh. “To overcome this challenge, we are adding insect protection to project-developed varieties. With this added protection, farmers will be able to secure a better maize crop through healthier plants that are able to use the water and nutrients they have more efficiently, which is critical during times of stress. This will also reduce pesticide use that will bring benefits to both the environment and human health”.

Insect-protected maize has been available to farmers for more than 16 years, and today is grown in more than 25 countries. In 2010, it was planted on 10.2 million hectares worldwide and approximately 1.6 million hectares were grown in South Africa. Detailed food, feed and environmental safety assessments confirm the safety of insect protected maize.

The insect protection trait is donated by Monsanto royalty-free. Pending research results and regulatory approvals, farmers in the WEMA countries could have access to drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize varieties developed through transgenic approaches by the later part of the decade.

“We are very excited about this addition, as it is complementary and supportive to the project’s continued efforts that are well underway to develop maize varieties that can mitigate the effects of drought stress on smallholder farmers,” said Dr. Oikeh.

For more information please contact Dr. Sylvester Oikeh, the WEMA Project Manager: s.oikeh@aatf-africa.org

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