Farmers adopting drought tolerant Maize in Makueni county, Kenya

Posted on Eastern Africa News, Media&Stories, News, News & Media, News & Stories, News articles, News release, Press room, Seed System News, October 14, 2019

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.

Journalists from Sweden in action to understand how maize breeding can help Kenyan farmers adapt to climate change. Photo : CIMMYT/Bossuet

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.

Dolly Muatha, demo farmer in Makueni county shows her maize grain surplus.
Photo: CIMMYT/Masinde

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, his wife and son in front of their house, near Wote. Photo: CIMMYT/Masinde

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.

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.

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.

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