During the annual review of STMA project for the West and Central African (WCA) Regional Stakeholders, held at the IITA headquarter in Ibadan, Nigeria, Dr Badu Apraku IITA maize breeder explained the progress made to develop striga and drought tolerant varieties to help farmers cope with these serious challenges in the region. Since 2014, 13 STMA improved varieties developed by STMA project in the WCA region are available on the regional seed market.
Tabitha Kamau, 29, is scrutinizing a maize demonstration plot on which 12 different varieties were planted in November 2018. “What I am looking for is a maize variety that produces a lot, even when there is scarce rainfall,” says the single mother of three, who lives in Katheini location with her mother on a quarter an acre of land.
Together with 350 other smallholder farmers from Katheini and neighboring villages of Machakos County, a water stress region, Kamau is assessing the maize crops and ranking them based on her preferred traits.
Like her peers when asked what makes a good maize variety, she gives high scores to drought tolerant (DT) varieties and those that can yield large and nicely filled cobs despite the prolonged dry spell over the last two months. For five years, Kamau has been planting KDV4, a DT open pollinated variety (OPV) on the family land and another piece of leased plot. This early variety matures in 100 to 110 days and adapted to the dry mid-altitude conditions.
KDV4 was released by the Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) using the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)’s germplasm. It is currently marketed by Dryland Seed Company and Freshco Seeds, targeting primarily farmers in the water-stress counties of Machakos, Kitui and Makueni in the lower eastern regions of Kenya.
The early maturity attribute of varieties like KDV presents a good opportunity for its adopters, says Kamau. “If I am able to harvest in three and a half months or less compared to four months or more for other varieties, I can sell some grain to neighbors still awaiting their harvest and want to feed their families.”
“I heard of new varieties that can germinate well and produce lots of leaves,” Catherine Musembi says. This woman farmer from Kivaani location looks for maize that performs well even under heat and water stress. She likes maize plants with high biomass, as the foliage is used to feed the family’s three cows and two goats.
Understanding farmers’ perspective to keep research demand-driven
The Social-Economics Program (SEP) team at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) has been undertaking participatory maize variety evaluations since 2016 in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania, in locations where the regional on-farm trials have been planted every year during the main maize growing season. The Machakos farmer varietal selection was facilitated by a team from KALRO Katumani on February 18-19, 2019. This exercise is part of the 2018 mid-season evaluations, which will then culminate in end-season assessments a month later.
Participatory farmer evaluations are used to give crucial feedback to our maize breeding work. First, farmers get an opportunity to state what traits are important for them and rank them according to their importance. Then, participants evaluate varieties planted in the trial and give a score on individual trait and the overall performance for each variety planted. And they conclude the exercise by rating the best three plots.
“Our work is to tease out the information regarding which traits contribute to a good score in the overall score’’, Bernard Munyua, SEP Research Assistant CIMMYT explains. Statistical analysis of the farmers score cards will reveal if the criteria importance stated initially play a strong role in the overall appreciation of a variety. For instance, farmers may give high importance to height or biomass, yet it may not play a role in their ranking of best varieties.
‘’Such data is important to maize breeders to support future variety improvement work,” Munyua notes. “Moreover, by dis-aggregating the farmers opinions by region and socioeconomic attributes such as gender, education and income, we can define the priority traits by region or farmers socioeconomic profiles. It helps better target maize breeding work according to the needs on the ground and gives useful knowledge to seed companies for their seed marketing strategy’’, he adds.
For instance, in the Eastern part of Kenya, farmers might be interested in traits such as drought tolerance, early maturity and disease resistance. In central Kenya where dairy farming is commonly practiced, a variety with more biomass can be an important factor. In western Kenya, they could be more interested in grain yields and cob characteristics to improve their sales after harvest.
Agnes Nthambi, the farmer who hosted the demonstration plot, is very positive about her participation, as she learned about some of the ideal agronomic practices as well as the performance of new varieties. “On this trial, I learned that spacing was about two times shorter than we are generally used to. Even with the more constricted spacing, the maize has performed much better than what we are used to seeing,” she says. She also learned that fertilizer is applied at the time of planting. In her case, she normally applies fertilizer much later after germination has already occurred.
Nthambi says her family cannot afford losing both the fertilizer and the seed in case the rains fail. This time, she expects a good harvest from the one-acre farm, to supplement her family income.
Speaking in September, during the third annual planning meeting of the DTMA Project, Tom Lumpkin, CIMMYT Director General urged project teams and national collaborators to be passionate about developing and delivering improved maize varieties to farmers, especially by linking up with seed companies. Lumpkin emphasized the need for climate-ready maize that will respond to the needs of smallholder farmers’ mixed cropping systems in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).
During the week of 15 – 19 September 2008, the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa Project (DTMA) team met at the scenic IITA campus in Ibadan, Nigeria, to review progress made in 2008, share insights and plan for 2009. They were joined by the Project Advisory Board as well as collaborators from national agricultural research systems (NARS), seed companies and universities.
“The DTMA Project team represents a good balance in expertise, which combined with the maize drought tolerance technology, has great potential of reaching 30 to 40 million people,” said Hartmann, the IITA Director General (in the photo here), during the meeting’s opening.
“The DTMA Project needs to focus on local production, especially with the emerging twin challenges of climate change and the energy crisis. We also need to let other players own the process for sustainability; thus we need an exit strategy,” he added.
Marianne Bänziger, CIMMYT Global Maize Program Director remarked, “There is tremendous power in Africa – the creativity of its researchers, the large number of newly emerging seed companies and farmers who yearn to make their lives better. We need to tap into this power if we want to generate impact.”
Presentations highlighted achievements made in developing, disseminating and targeting new drought tolerant varieties as well as building the capacity of project collaborators. For example, the DTMA Project developed largescale drought screening sites in Kiboko, Kenya, and Ikene, Nigeria. There the first crop of maize under managed drought stress was grown to increase the availability of drought tolerant maize varieties in sub-Saharan Africa. Also, in seeking to motivate and move breeders toward data-driven breeding programs, the DTMA Project developed and promotes new maize data management tools – such as the International Maize Information Service (IMIS) and Fieldbook – freely available from the DTMA website (dtma.cimmyt.org).
“The DTMA project provides opportunities in form of germplasm, varieties, breeder seed and trained personnel, and we encourage you to optimally use them,” said Wilfred Mwangi, DTMA Project Leader. During 2008, DTMA provided training in state-of-the-art maize breeding and variety release approaches as well as technology adoption studies and seed business management. Scientists from IITA, CIMMYT, NARS and established seed companies worked together to design and run the courses.
During the meeting, the participants held discussions along thematic and regional lines (Eastern, Western and Southern Africa), compared their experiences and challenges, and proposed strategies to improve the DTMA Project. The discussions centered on diverse aspects of variety development; testing and release; technology dissemination; breeder and foundation seed production; as well as production and marketing of certified seed.
“One size does not fit all” was the meeting’s major conclusion. Africa is diverse and the various in-country teams will strive to carefully target their investments to mission-critical bottlenecks and effective scale-up strategies in the seed value chain. The teams tackled this challenge by beginning to develop seed and impact road maps, leaving no doubt that the impact targets of the DTMA Project will be achieved.