Ethiopian maize farmers fast adopting new drought-tolerant maize hybrid to boost their productivity and resilience.

Posted on dtma, Eastern Africa News, Eastern Africa News, News, News & Stories, Newsletter, Seed System News, July 11, 2019

‘’Getting a good maize harvest every year, even when it does not rain much, is important for my family’s welfare’’ says Sequare Regassa, a widow and mother of four, while feeding her granddaughter with white injera, a rollable flatbread, made of white grain maize.

Sequare Regassa feeding her grand-daughter (credit: CIMMYT / Simret Yasabu)

Since her husband died, Sequare has been for many years the only bread winner for her family. Her children have grown up and established their own families. The whole extended family makes a living from their eight-hectare farm in Guba Sayo district in Oromia Zone, Ethiopia.

On the two hectares Sequare cultivates on her own, she rotates maize with pepper, sweet potato and anchote, a local tuber similar to cassava. Like many farming families in the region, she primarily grows maize for household food consumption, prepared as bread, soup, porridge and snacks. Maize represents a third of cereals grown in Ethiopia. Cheaper than wheat or teff (a traditional millet grain in Ethiopia), maize is important for poor households as they mix maize flour with teff to make the national staple injera.

During a field visit in mid-April, Sequare was busy preparing the land for the next cropping season. She wondered if rains will be good this year as the onset of rainy season was quite late. Choice of maize variety could be crucial.

She used to plant a late maturing hybrid released more than 25 years ago, BH660, the most popular variety in the early 2000’s. However, this variety was not selected for drought tolerance. Ethiopian farmers face increasing drought risks, like the recent 2015 El Nino dry spell, severely impacting staple crop production, and leading to food insecurity and grain price volatility.

Convincing demonstrations for farmers and seed companies

Under the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) project, maize breeders from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research (EIAR) developed promising drought tolerant hybrids which perform well under drought and normal conditions. After a series of evaluations, BH661 emerged as the best candidate with 10% better on-farm grain yield, higher biomass production, shorter maturity and 34 percent reduction in lodging, compared to BH660. BH661 was released in 2011 for commercial cultivation in the mid-altitude sub-humid and transition highlands.

The year after, as farmers experienced drought, the Ethiopian extension service organized BH661 on-farm demonstrations, while EIAR  and CIMMYT breeders organized Participatory Varietal Selection (PVS) trials. Farmers were impressed by the outstanding performances of BH661 during these demos and PVS trials and started asking for seeds immediately, forcing seed companies to quickly scale-up certified seed production of this new drought tolerant hybrid.

The Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa (STMA) team assisted local seed companies to switch to BH661 in a series of trainings and varietal trials. They were rapidly convinced as well to replace the old hybrid, BH660. ‘’In addition to drought tolerance, BH661 is more resistant to important maize diseases like Turcicum Leaf Blight and Grey Leaf Spot. For seed companies, there is no change in the way the hybrid is produced compared to BH660, but seed production of BH661 is much more cost-effective, ’’ explained Dagne Wegary, CIMMYT maize breeder.

The national Bako National Maize Research Center supplied breeder seeds to certified seed producers—namely, Amhara Seed Enterprise (ASE), Bako Agricultural Research Center (BARC), Ethiopian Seed Enterprise (ESE), Oromia Seed Enterprise (OSE) and South Seed Enterprise (SSE). Certified seeds were then distributed through seed companies’ own sales teams, agricultural offices, and non- governmental organizations, with the technical and extension support of research centers.

Weatherproof hybrid harvests additional incomes

After witnessing the performance of BH661 in a neighbor’s field, Sequare asked advice from her local extension officer, and decided to adopt this hybrid along with recommended agronomic practices. She is now able to produce between 11-12 tons per hectare. She said her family life has changed forever since she started planting BH661.

Sequare Regassa in front of her field, prepared for maize planting
(credit: CIMMYT / Simret Yasabu)

‘’If farmers follow the recommended fertilizer application and other farming practices, BH661 performs much better than the old BH660 variety,’’ explained Sequare. “If we experience a drought, it may be not that bad thanks to BH 661’s drought tolerance,’’ she added. Sequare buys her improved seeds from Bako Research Station, as well as from farmers’ Cooperative Unions (FCU). The FCU access seeds from various seed companies and sell to farmers in their respective districts. ‘’Many around me are interested in growing BH661. Sometimes we may get less seeds than requested as the demand exceeds the supply.’’  

With higher maize grain harvest, she is now able to better feed her chickens, sheep and cattle. She also sells some surplus to the local market to get some additional income, which she will spend on household necessities. Sequare observed that maize prices increased in recent years, with 100 kg bag of maize sold at ETB 600 – 700 ($20-23), while it had previously been sold between ETB 200 – 400 ($7-14). With the increased farmers’ wealth in her village, families were able to pay collectively for the installation of a communal water point to get easy access to clean water.

‘’Like women’s role in a society, no one can forget the role maize has in our community. It feeds us, it feeds our animals, cobs are used as fuel. A successful maize harvest every year is a boon for our village,’’ Sequare concluded. 

Participatory varietal selection to decipher what maize smallholder farmers want

Posted on annual meetings, Eastern Africa News, Eastern Africa News, Media&Stories, News, News & Media, News & Stories, News Articles, News release, Seed System News, April 9, 2019

Tabitha Kamau inspecting her drought-tolerant maize variety in Katheini location, Kenya – Photo credit:Joshua Masinde

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.

Katheini women farmers ranking 12 maize varieties during a STMA participatory varietal evaluation, Kenya, February 2019 – Photo credit: Joshua Masinde

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 in her demonstration plot – Photo credit: Joshua Masinde.

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.

Solving the ‘’last mile’’ challenge of maize seeds

Posted on Eastern Africa News, Eastern Africa News, Media&Stories, News, News & Media, News & Stories, March 15, 2019

Agrodealers play a pivotal role in delivering the gains of the green revolution to millions of smallholders in Africa, providing access to key inputs like improved maize varieties. So far, seed systems research has mainly focused on the factors influencing farmers’ adoption of new varieties, and, to a lesser extent, why seed companies will invest or not in a new improved variety. While private, independent agrodealers are key to provide new improved seeds, fertilizers, and agronomic advices, relatively little is known about who they are, their needs and constraints, and the ways in which they secure and grow their business.

Philomena Mwangi in her agrodealer shop in Ngarariga village

Understanding how to better support agro-dealers is important for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) to ensure that new varieties reach the largest possible number of farmers. Under the Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa (STMA) project, CIMMYT has launched a new research effort to better understand agrodealers in Kenya, with a specific focus on maize seed marketing.

Researchers are now testing the tools and expect to begin field work in March 2019, during the next maize planting season. ‘’We want to collect detailed quantitative and qualitative data about the way agrodealers choose what maize varieties they sell, and how they market these seeds to farmers’’, explained CIMMYT associate scientist Pieter Rutsaert who leads the study. Such research will provide valuable insights for the seed sector to improve their marketing strategies, as well as to government agencies, NGOs and funders in order to better design future agro-dealer interventions, for a greater and more sustainable impact.

The million-shilling question

Enumerator Victor Kitoto explaining the investment game to Philomena Mwangi

The way questions are selected and phrased, and data collected is critical. ‘’Figuring out how to ask the right question to the right person is a hard business, especially when we ask agro-dealers to evaluate their own performance’’, recognized Rutsaert. For instance, how do you estimate the importance of maize seed sales compared to other inputs and services when the owner, like this seventy-year-old lady, proud owner of a farm input shop in Kikuyu town, is hesitant to provide information about her business to outsiders. You may get a lot of ‘’katikati’’ answers (average in kiswahili). Anticipating the challenges of collecting reliable and comparable data, Rutsaert’s team will use several visual tools, like illustrated cards, to facilitate conversations with interviewees. They will also use innovative exercises like the shop investment game, where owners are asked how they would invest one million Kenyan shillings (about US$10,000).

Standing behind the counter of her shop, with few bags of feeding supplements for dairy cattle and small pesticide bottles on dusty shelves, Philomena Muthoni Mwangi explained she had currently no maize seeds for sale. This small agrodealer in the village of Ngarariga, in central Kenya will restock her maize seeds at the onset of the rainy season, from a big agrovet shop nearby. This is quite common as agrodealers are not risktakers when it comes to selling new varieties, not knowing the future demand. Leftover seed stock after the planting season would severely reduce her potential profit as margins per bag are low. To address this issue, CIMMYT researchers will conduct an intercept farmer survey in the coming weeks, to better understand what farmers look for when buying maize seeds.

Agro-dealers are not a homogeneous group as there is a world apart between the Kikuyu town one stop shop visited earlier, and Mwangi’s small farm input shack. While both owners were enthusiast when asked the final exercise about their shop’s future and how they would invest if given one million shillings, their business models, seed marketing strategy and type of clients may differ a lot. This study will provide useful insights to design targeted seed scaling strategies that consider all kinds of agrodealers, moving away from a ‘’one-size-fits-all’’ approach.

NASECO’s steady success to deliver stress tolerant, high yielding maize seeds to Ugandan farmers

Posted on Eastern Africa News, Eastern Africa News, Media&Stories, News, November 22, 2018

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) has been supporting Uganda-based Nalweyo Seed Company (NASECO), in collaboration with Uganda’s National Agriculture Research Organization (NARO), to develop and produce high-yielding, stress tolerant maize seed varieties, which have increased farmers’ harvests and improved their livelihoods. Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa (STMA) and other CIMMYT projects have supported NASECO to gain germplasm access, promote and market better maize hybrids in Uganda and neighboring countries. NASECO is now producing two of Uganda’s top-selling, drought tolerant maize hybrids: Longe 10H, a high yielding hybrid; and Bazooka, tolerant to drought and major diseases.

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