Drought resistant maize variety to address Kenya’s food insecurity

When Bertha Otor ventured into farming way back in 1994, her expectations were high: to get enough bountiful harvest from her one acre land to feed her family, raise school fees for her children and make sales out of the harvest.

“As a farmer, the challenge I have is that when I plant, I don’t get a harvest because of drought and crop diseases. We plant different seeds to see which one has the best harvest. We suffered a lot because everything we planted dried up,” Otor narrates, adding that “the weather keeps changing and if you plant your maize without the rains, they will get spoilt and you will lose everything. Last season was so bad, no one harvested,” says Otor, 37, a farmer in Kisumu county.

Otor’s story resonates with 300 million smallholder farmers in Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) who depend on rain-fed agriculture whose maize production has been severely affected by frequent drought in the region.

Africa is a drought-prone continent, making farming risky for millions of smallholder farmers who rely on rainfall to water their crops.

Identifying ways to mitigate drought risk, stabilise yields, and encourage small-scale farmers to adopt best farming practices is fundamental to realising food security and improved livelihoods for Kenyan farmers and those from other parts of the region.

Coming in handy in addressing Africa’s farming woes, scientists from national agricultural research centers in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa have for the last five years been developing drought-tolerant and insect-pest protected maize varieties with a goal to make these varieties available royalty-free to smallholder farmers in SSA.

“The maize varieties will help produce more reliable harvests and better grain quality due to reduced insect damage for smallholder farmers. Insect-pest protected maize varieties will also reduce the need for pesticide use, which will bring benefits to both the environment and human health,” says Dr. Murenga Mwimali, Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) coordinator and a maize breeder.

WEMA is a private –public partnership initiative led by Africa Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and has been developing drought resistant seeds varieties since 2008.

It combines the best technologies available in conventional advanced plant breeding and technology.

In Kenya, WEMA varieties are being developed under a partnership involving AATF, the non-profit International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Monsanto and KARI with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffet Foundation

Grace Wachoro from AATF says seed varieties developed under the project will be available royalty free to local seed suppliers for small holder farmers in Sub Saharan Africa.

WEMA project rose from the fact that maize -which is a major staple food for most people in Kenya and Africa at large- production is hampered by frequent drought in the region occasioned by global warming.

“Drought tolerance has been recognised as one of the most important targets of crop improvement programs and biotechnology has been identified as a powerful tool to achieve significant drought tolerance by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization,” Dr. Mwimali says.

The project is using conventional breeding, marker-assisted breeding and biotechnology to make the varieties thrive well in drought prone regions of Kenya and similar areas within SSA.

“The varieties will give at least 25 percent yield advantage under moderate drought conditions compared to current varieties already in the market. This increase would translate into about two million additional tonnes of food during drought years,” says Dr. Mwimali.

Already, 16 hybrids are approved for release in Kenya with one hybrid WE1101 under market sale tag- DroughtTEGO™-commercialized and available in the market.

Otor who planted the variety last season says: “The Drought TEGO is bigger compared to the other local maize varieties, it tolerates drought in case there are no rains. People keep asking where I got this maize.”

Even with such varieties which can withstand extreme drought bout in the country, the government moved to import 60,000 metric tonnes of maize from Tanzania amid clamor from farmers and parliamentary committee on agriculture to halt such a move.

“Why would the government import maize from Tanzania yet there is no maize deficit in the country. Our farmers will lose their money including their farm input due to this punitive move,” noted Busia County women representative, Florence Mwikali Mutua who is a member of agriculture committee, when a section of parliamentary committee on agriculture visited the Kiboko research centre.

Florence calls on the government to adopt agricultural technologies that will effectively address Kenya’s food security challenges by increasing farmers’ yield.

Maize and wheat varieties developed by CIMMYT are grown on over 64 million hectares and 2 million hectares respectively in developing countries.

In this endeavour, the varieties developed by CIMMYT and KARI have been shared with several Kenyan commercial seed companies who have in turn been linked with community-based seed producers, some of whom are based in this district.

This partnership has assisted improve farmers’ access to new and improved maize and wheat seeds.I am informed that the Maize Doubled Haploid (DH) facility in Kiboko and the Maize Lethal Necrosisdisease screening facility in Naivasha will enhance the maize variety development process.

The Wheat Stem-rust disease screening nursery already established in Njoro has-already borne fruit, with eight new wheat varieties already bred by KARI, says agriculture principal secretary, Sicily Kariuki.

The DH new maize hybrids variety developed by through the technology dramatically reduce the time from seven to eight crop seasons to only two, according to agriculture cabinet secretary, Felix Koskei who opened the DH facility at Kiboko where hybrid seeds are to be developed.

At Kiboko the facility will specially targeted at strengthening the maize breeding programs by the public sector institutions as well as small and medium-size enterprise seed companies in Africa.

With the establishment of the maize DH facility in KARI-Kiboko through the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and KARI partnership, the station emerges as a “center of excellence” for maize breeding not only in sub-Saharan Africa, but also in the developing world.

“The facility will be key to fast-tracking the development and delivery of drought tolerant, disease and insect-pest resistant, and nutritionally enriched maize varieties for the benefit of African farmers,” says Director Global Maize Program at CIMMYT. Dr B.M. Prasanna.