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June 18, 2012

The un-asked background questions as Tanzanian farmers give drought-tolerant maize a try

Maize varieties being developed by the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) are being tested in an arid area of Tanzania where farmers had increasingly abandoned ‘ordinary’ maize because of the low rain and low yields.

A May 14 Reuters AlertNet report says the results have been very encouraging, with initially skeptical farmers now enthusiastically talking about their greatly improved maize yields.

“I was not sure these seeds would be any good, but it’s amazing - they require little water and they grow fast,” said farmer Balisidya Jacob.

Marijani Mrisho said “It was very dry but the researchers told us to sow them,” he said. “I did not have to do any irrigation yet the seedlings looked good. I have filled up 30 bags of maize this season on my small farm. If I used normal seeds I could hardly get five bags. That’s why most farmers here shunned the crop initially,” he said.

Not only are the yields said to be much better than those for conventional seed (up tp50% higher, according to a WEMA researcher quoted in the report), maturity is said to be achieved in an average 75 days versus the normal 90 days.

It sounds good, although it uncomfortably also reads like a WEMA-sponsored visit by the reporter, with no tough questions being asked or featuring in the report.

Interestingly, there is no mention that WEMA project is based on gene-modification. That matters not necessarily as a judgment of gene-modification, but because it is so controversial as an answer to Africa’s crop yield challenges. Not mentioning that relevant detail almost seems as if the reporter, the publication or WEMA deliberately want to hide or downplay this aspect of the project, instead of tackling it head on.

Great about the claimed high yields even in very low rainfall conditions. What about the cost of the new seed varieties versus perceived affordability by the farmers?

This is not dealt with directly, but we are told ‘The researchers say villagers will eventually pay a subsidized rate of 200 Tanzanian shillings (about $0.13) per kilo.’

That’s nice, but how long will this subsidy last? Who is doing the subdizing? The mention of a subsidy implied that the WEMA promoters think/know that farmers would not be willing/able to pay the full unsubsidized prices for their new maize varieties. If so, what are the implications of this when the subsidy funds run out?

Finally, the article mentions that poor maize yields had made many of the farmers shift from growing their preferred maize staple to less-preferred but more drought-appropriate grains like millet and sorghum. That seems like a smart move, and does not put the farmers at the risk of depending on WEMA, outside seeds and subsidies that may not always be available in the future.

Question: Are the interests of the WEMA people for there to be an outlet for their seeds going up against the locally developed, locally-relevant adaptation strategies of the farmers? Are the farmers being inappropriately enslaved to a crop that they should fundamentally be moving away from growing and relying on as their main food staple?

WEMA has no incentive to encourage the asking of these important questions, but their absence represents  gaping holes in an otherwise interesting article.

African Agriculture

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