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August 31, 2008

Kenya to begin tests of drought-tolerant maize

A field testing centre for drought-resistance maize has been set up in Kenya, giving fresh impetus to the country's efforts to reclaim arid and semi arid lands for farming.

The centre, at Kiboko in the dry Ukambani ecological zone, is expected to help bring more land under maize, Kenya’s main staple, to boost food security. A screening centre is a field where new varieties are exposed to the natural elements.

Those that thrive under the target zone are retained and improved with genetic material from crops already grown in the area, improving their adaptability, while those that wither under the harsh climate are removed from the list of drought resistance varieties.

Screening helps bring out the ultimate drought-resistant variety – that can grow in all marginal regions.

The large-scale drought screening site has been developed by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute at a time the country is facing an acute maize shortage and is in the process of importing 1.6 million bags from South Africa and Tanzania to bridge the shortfall.

The Kiboko Maize Research Centre will be inaugurated on September 5, allowing breeders to test more than 3,000 new varieties for drought tolerance every year.

“The work here promises to make locally-adapted, drought tolerant maize varieties a reality for many more farmers in Kenya and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa,” said Ms Anne Wangalachi of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (Cgiar)

The centre will also act as a training zone for maize breeders, technicians and students from African countries and has attracted the interest of Asian researchers who have made enquiries over the possibility of signing up for the venture.

Drought has been the main hindrance to development in many parts of Africa but a solution to it is critical in Kenya where only a third of the land mass is arable. This is eaten to further by cash crop agriculture at small scale and large scale level, leaving less than a fifth of land under food crop.

Recent efforts at reclaiming marginal lands have focused on ending reliance on rain-fed agriculture through irrigation projects but budgetary constraints and politics have ensured most of these schemes remain on paper.

The drought-resistance maize project will complement other programmes to increase and stabilise maize production in the face of rising food and fuel prices and climate change.

“Kiboko represents an investment in science to a future where African maize farmers can stop thinking about high food prices as a “crisis,” and begin to see them as an opportunity to grow and sell more maize, helping their families to live a better life,” said Ms Wangalachi.

At a recent pan African maize workshop in Nairobi, an alliance involving more than 20 sub-Saharan nation NGOs, national research and extension agencies and local seed companies said the region was working on strategies to make drought tolerant maize for Africa project a reality in the next 10 years.


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