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January 06, 2012

Drought-tolerant maize faces rain aplenty in Zimbabwe

For Mary Sikirwayi, maize is life to her and her family, and she grows a number of varieties. Mostly she eats white maize, which she grinds and cooks to produce Zimbabwe’s staple food, sadza. In 2011 she participated in on-farm trials of drought tolerant varieties, part of the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) project. Her farm produced 5.5 tons of maize, increased from only 3.5 tons last year. She also grows yellow maize (left) as feed for her chickens and other livestock, and a local red maize (right) that she uses for medicinal purposes, milling it into a special sadza to treat ailments from indigestion to heart problems.

Lack of rain is usually the biggest problem for maize in Murewa District, Zimbabwe, where drought tolerant varieties are being tested with local farmers, but high levels of rainfall in 2011 offered a different challenge.

For farmers like Mary Sikirwayi, maize is life. Although she also grows wheat, peanuts, and beans, maize is her most important crop and her staple food. This year, she tried out drought tolerant maize for the first time, participating in a program of on-farm trials, and for her its performance shone even though the sun didn’t. Last season, her farm produced only 3.5 tons of maize, but this season she was able to produce 5.5 tons. The new drought tolerant maize varieties have proved able to hold their own under conditions of high rainfall, and are producing up to 25% higher yields than commercial varieties, according to Oswell Ndoro, CIMMYT research officer in Zimbabwe.

Maize varieties for dry conditions are a major focus for CIMMYT breeders, especially with climate change predicted to make droughts more common across most of the globe. However, star performances under drought are not enough; the maize crop must do well whatever the weather, even with excessive rain. “If CIMMYT develops varieties of maize which are drought tolerant, then that’s great," says Ndoro. "But if these same varieties are unable to produce high yields with varied levels of rainfall, then farmers lose confidence in the product. All it takes is one bad season for farmers to lose confidence in a seed variety.”

Normally Murewa District, about 75 kilometers north-east of Harare, is subject to recurrent droughts, making it a perfect testing-ground for drought tolerant maize. CIMMYT has been working with local agricultural extension workers and farmers to test varieties as part of the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) project, a CIMMYT-led partnership involving researchers from 13 nations in sub-Saharan Africa that aims to accelerate drought tolerant maize development and deployment.

DTMA focuses on areas where consistent drought is a chief constraint on maize production, but plentiful rain during the 2011 growing season in Murewa posed farmers with an unusual problem. Rainfall from January to July was 1,054 mm, more than double the average. “This is a highly-populated area, and has often suffered from drought-related food deficits, but this year, the issue was more nitrogen deficiency from the excessive rains,” explains Ndoro, who is responsible for on-farm participatory trails in Murewa. If they are to provide useful solutions, scientists must develop versatile varieties that provide reliably good yields and have other important traits too, such as resistance to pests and diseases. “DTMA maize breeders are doing just that,” says Ndoro.

Successful on-farm trials mean close cooperation with local partners; in Murewa CIMMYT works in collaboration with the Zimbabwe government’s Agricultural, Technical and Extension Services Department (AGRITEX) to test and disseminate drought tolerant varieties. Even the best varieties will struggle without good management, so the training provided by extension workers on topics such as crop management and identification of pests and diseases is vital. AGRITEX extension workers meet with farmers 2-3 times a week, and CIMMYT research officers also visit each trial participant several times during the growing season.

New things can be daunting, and not all farmers are willing or able to participate in these initial trials; they must be committed and able to keep records. However, Nevis Moronbo and Nogate Zvereza Moronbo, a farming couple who feed 12 children on the maize, wheat, beans, and other crops from their 4 hectares of land, are in no doubt that the effort was worth it. “I’m happy about the trial and expect to do it again,” says Nevis. “I wanted to know more about improved varieties of maize and I’m happy about the results. I’ve tested three varieties on my farm. They were all very good. Hopefully I’ll be able to sell the surplus to invest in poultry and cattle.”

The Moronbo family’s newfound prosperity paves the way for other farmers. “With DTMA, we test the best commercial varieties against CIMMYT-developed varieties, both on the experiment station in Harare and through participatory on-farm testing,” says Ndoro. “We use a wide gene pool, developing the best germplasm from local lines and CIMMYT germplasm.” By working in partnership with national maize programs and private seed companies, DTMA brings together CIMMYT’s international network of breeders and wealth of germplasm resources with the power to test varieties extensively under local conditions, drawing on the expertise of farmers and extension workers to produce maize varieties ideally suited to the region. Thanks to its greater productivity, this drought tolerant maize has the potential to increase farmers’ yields and incomes and improve regional food security.

CIMMYT

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