Climate-ready maize gets a boost: Phase III of the drought tolerant maize in Africa project to reach more farmers

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Climate-ready maize gets a boost: Phase III of the drought tolerant maize in Africa project to reach more farmers

EMBARGOED UNTIL 23 FEBRUARY 2012 12.00 PM NAIROBI TIME

NAIROBI --Over the past five years, more than 34 new drought tolerant maize varieties have been developed and deployed to over 2 million smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, empowering them to cope with climate change impacts on their livelihoods and food security. These efforts recently received a funding boost of US$ 33 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for the next four years.

Coordinating these efforts is the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, known by its Spanish acronym, CIMMYT, in partnership with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and national partners from 13 African countries. Known as the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa project, it builds upon previous work by more than 50 partners over several decades.

“If you care about the poorest, you care about agriculture,” says Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill &  Melinda Gates Foundation. “Investments in agriculture are the best weapons against hunger and poverty, and they have made life better for billions of people. The international agriculture community needs to be more innovative, coordinated and focused to really be effective in helping poor farmers grow more. If we can do that, we can dramatically reduce suffering, and build self-sufficiency.”

This is one of seven grants Gates announced today in Rome at the Thirty-fifth Session of the Governing Council of the International Fund for Agricultural Development. This announcement, nearly $200 million in grants, brings the foundation’s total commitment to agriculture to more than $2 billion since the program began in 2006.

‘Insurance within the maize seed’
By testing maize varieties for drought tolerance from all over the world, CIMMYT, IITA and national scientists have been able to develop varieties adapted to African conditions and with increased drought tolerance. Cross-pollinating these varieties with others that feature farmer-valued traits such as high yield, good cooking qualities, and resistance to several important diseases such as maize streak virus, scientists have developed winning varieties—seed that can give African farmers a good harvest under both good rainfall and moderate drought conditions.

“This maize is like an insurance against hunger and total crop failure, even under hot, dry conditions like those of recent years," says Rashid Said Mpinga, a maize farmer in Morogoro, Tanzania. Mpinga is one of 2 million smallholder farmers who have seen the benefits of these varieties firsthand. He was able to increase his maize yield by 40% just by growing a new drought tolerant maize variety (TAN 250) marketed in Tanzania.

Risky business needs innovation
Maize is ‘life’ to more than 300 million of Africa’s most vulnerable people and the continent’s top food staple. Most of this maize is grown under rain-fed conditions and with a probability of the region experiencing a drought once every ten years, maize farming is risky business. As temperatures rise there is an urgent need to grow maize that is able to thrive on less water. Experts at CIMMYT and Stanford University have shown that breeding efforts to produce drought tolerant crops are beneficial for managing current and future risks of drought and also likely to be important for the expected warming of Africa’s maizelands; drought and heat tolerant maize is critical to Africa’s ability to feed itself. 

In 2011 alone, more than 12.5 million people suffered the effects of drought and resulting famines in the Horn of Africa, with the drought being termed the worst in 60 years. 

Philip Ngolania, a retired teacher-turned-farmer, experienced the effects of this drought too. When he planted seed of a new maize variety, he was not sure if he would harvest anything. After all, the rains almost failed and his neighbors’ farms had patchy stands of stunted maize plants. But Ngolania’s maize did thrive and he was able to harvest five bags from his small plot while his neighbors had total crop failure. “If I had not invested in these new seeds, I would have had nothing, nothing, like my neighbors!” says Ngolania.

Drought tolerant maize is designed to take advantage of whatever little water it receives at the critical times of germination and flowering.

A boost for greater impact
The project has made great strides toward its ten-year goal of increasing average maize productivity under smallholder farmer conditions by 20-30% on adopting farms. The new funding should enable delivery of enough drought tolerant maize seed to benefit 30-40 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, adding grain worth an annual average of US$ 160-200 million in drought-affected areas. 

“In this phase, our focus will be on developing varieties with both heat and drought tolerance, and getting the seed of these varieties into farmers’ hands as widely, timely and affordably as possible,” says Wilfred Mwangi, Project Leader, DTMA.

The project has been working with both private and public seed producers to get quality certified seed of these new varieties to farmers, and will step up these efforts with the new funding.

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The Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) Project is jointly implemented by CIMMYT and the IITA, and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The project is part of a broad partnership, involving national agricultural research and extension systems, seed companies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community-based organizations (CBOs), and advanced research institutes, known as the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) Initiative. Its activities build on longer-term support by other donors, including the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Eiselen Foundation. The project aims to develop and disseminate drought tolerant, high-yielding, locally-adapted maize.

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