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.

Digital imaging tools make maize breeding much more efficient

Posted on Media&Stories, News, Research News, March 14, 2019

To accelerate annual genetic gains under various stress conditions, maize breeders are looking at cost-effective ways to assess a larger number of maize plants and to collect more accurate data related to key plant characteristics like kernel number and size per ear, leaf angles or ear heights.

Measuring maize attributes such as ear size, kernel number and kernel weight is becoming faster and simpler through digital imaging technologies.

Recent innovations in digital imagery and sensors, packaged in what plant scientists call high-throughput phenotyping platforms, save money and time by replacing lengthy paper-based visual observations of crop trials with real-time big data collection and management.

Authors of a recent review study on high-throughput phenotyping tools observe that obtaining accurate and inexpensive estimates of genetic value of individuals is central to breeding. Under the Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa project, researchers like Mainassara Zaman-Allah use drone and create new digital tools, like the ear analyzer, for cheaper and faster plant selection. Drone cuts data collection costs by 25 to 75 percent compared to conventional methods.  The ear analyzer allows to collect maize ear and kernel trait data 90 percent faster. This mobile app has been used by CIMMYT and the GOAL NGO to assess the extent of fall armyworm impact on maize crops yield in eastern Zimbabwe.

Read more about how STMA makes maize breeding faster and cheaper here

Drought-tolerant hybrid seed offers farmers reprieve from hunger

Posted on Media&Stories, News, Seed System News, March 13, 2019

MACHAKOS, Kenya (CIMMYT) – The scorching heat from the sun does not stop Mary Munini, a middle-aged smallholder farmer in Vyulya, Machakos County, from inspecting her distressed maize crop. Traces of worry cloud her face.

“I will not harvest anything this season,” she says, visibly downcast.

Like many other smallholder farmers spread across the water-stressed counties of Machakos, Makueni and Kitui, in Kenya’s lower eastern region, Munini is staring at a massive crop loss. Prolonged dry spells have for years threatened the food security and livelihoods of many rural families in the region who depend entirely on rain for their agricultural production. Here, most smallholder farmers typically plant farm-saved maize seeds, which lack the attributes to tolerate harsher droughts, extreme heat or water stress. With such conditions, farmers can hardly harvest any maize.

“We just had a little rain at the start of planting. Since then, we have not had any more rain. As you can see, my maize could not withstand the extended dry spell,” says Munini. Like her, over 80 percent of Kenyans depend on maize as their main staple food to supply their dietary requirements, especially in rural areas.

In a neighboring farm, the situation is different. The owner, Gitau Gichuru, planted the SAWA hybrid, an improved maize seed variety designed to withstand drought conditions. This variety was developed by scientists at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and promoted to Kenyan farmers by Dryland Seed, a local seed company. This initiative to improve maize farmers’ climate resilience in the region was possible thanks to the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation under the Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa (STMA) project. With the right agronomic practices, the SAWA hybrid can return a yield advantage of up to 20 percent compared to other popular drought-tolerant hybrids in the region, according to Dryland Seed’s managing director, Ngila Kimotho.

Farmer Gitau Gichuru (right) shows maize from his farm to CIMMYT’s regional representative for Africa, Stephen Mugo. Gichuru planted SAWA hybrid maize, developed by CIMMYT scientists. (Photo: Joshua Masinde/CIMMYT)

“This variety has become so popular in this region that we have decided to make it our flagship brand. There are occasions when the demand is so high that we run out of stock,” Kimotho says.

Reaping the benefits

The company distributes improved seeds through a network of about 100 agrodealers across Kenya. One of the most effective ways to promote drought-tolerant hybrids such as SAWA is demonstration plots managed by lead farmers, who can showcase to their peers the hybrid’s performance under recommended agronomic practices. Most of the demo farms are located by the roadside for better visibility to road users, who frequently stop and ask about the healthy-looking maize crop. Field days have also had a positive effect of creating awareness and getting farmers to adopt the SAWA hybrid and other improved seed varieties. Farmers attending field days are ordinarily issued with small seed packs as samples to try out on their farms.

Gichuru, who planted the SAWA hybrid maize seed for the first time last season, is happy with the results. “I decided to try it on a portion of the land that is sandy. We have only had some little rain, twice or so, at the time of planting and during the vegetative state. To be honest, I didn’t expect the crop to amount to anything. But, as you can see, I am looking forward to a good harvest,” Gichuru says.

Doris Muia, a mother of three who has planted the hybrid for two years at her farm, is equally happy with the outcome. She says her household will never lack food and she hopes to get additional income from the sale of the surplus maize produce.

Mary Munini, a smallholder farmer in Vyulya, in Kenya’s Machakos County, inspects her maize crop. She planted the farm-saved seed, which does not tolerate drought or severe heat, so she is expecting a massive crop loss this season. (Photo: Joshua Masinde/CIMMYT)

“When we see how the varieties that we have developed such as the SAWA hybrid are putting smiles on farmers’ faces, this makes us very happy,” expresses Stephen Mugo, CIMMYT Regional Representative for Africa.

For some farmers, however, it is hard to gather the money to buy improved seed varieties. The little income Munini earns from her small shop goes towards supporting her children’s education, and she often has nothing left to buy improved hybrid seed varieties, despite being aware of the advantages. In other instances, some farmers often buy small portions of the improved maize variety and mix it with farm-saved seed stock or poor-quality seeds from informal sources. “The expectation is that if one variety succumbs to drought or severe heat, the next variety may survive. However, with proper agricultural practices, hybrids such as SAWA can cope well against such climate stresses, thereby improving the smallholders’ livelihood and food security,” concludes Mugo.

Access to Stress Tolerant Maize enables Kamano Seeds in Zambia to provide varieties that buffer smallholder farmers in recurrent drought

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

CIMMYT’s Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa (STMA) and Drought Tolerant Maize Seed Scaling (DTMASS) projects have supported family owned seed companies to be part of sustainable long-term solutions to buffer African smallholder farmers against recurrent droughts via access to improved seeds. This is in line with CIMMYT mission strengthen local maize seed system through public-private partnerships. Kamano Seeds, established in 2004 in Lusaka, Zambia, is now producing more than 2000 tons of certified seeds of drought tolerant maize hybrids (KAM601 and KAM602) per year. This has been possible thanks to the technical support and provision of high-quality breeder seeds by CIMMYT.

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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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