Swedish journalists Eric Abel and Anna Liljemalm who are writing a book on climate change and seed visited the Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa project in Kenya from Sept. 9-11, 2019.
We met some farmers who adopted drought tolerant maize hybrid SAWA from Dryland Seeds Ltd (DSL) in drought-prone Makueni county.
Dolly Muatha is a 49 years-old demo farmer with four children.
Because her fields are well placed near the road, she has benefited for the last three years from DSL support to demonstrate the yield potential of SAWA DT maize in this terraced landscape.
Dolly likes SAWA ‘’because it produces 2 to three beautiful cobs and it matures early. In case rains stop when the maize is at knee height, even before tassel and silks form, that is where you see its potential compared to non-drought tolerant varieties.’’
Alex Somba 45 year-old farmer near Wote saw how SAWA performed at Muatha’s farm and tried it out in 2017.
He usually practices dry planting from October 1, as rains usually start around the third or end October, until end of the year.
‘’SAWA beats other popular hybrids because of its early maturity and drought tolerance. It resists well to Grey Leaf Spot and grain stores well, resists weevil.’’
‘’If rains start end of October and after 2 weeks of rains there is a dry spell of 2 weeks, other varieties will perform badly whereas SAWA copes relatively well with such erratic rains patterns,’’ he added.
Providing good agronomic advice to the farmers is important to benefit fully from new varieties. Joyce, DSL field officer pointed out that ‘’ a good advice I usually give for farmers like Alex is optimum crop spacing.’’ For better yields, she would advise to practice 20cm x 30 cm spacing, one seed at a time. Traditionally farmers would put up to 5 seeds per planting hole, which will generate small cobs and much lower yields.
‘’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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.’’
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
will not harvest anything this season,” she says, visibly downcast.
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.
a neighboring farm, the situation is different. The owner, Gitau Gichuru, planted
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.