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March 23, 2009

New climate-ready maize varieties released in Malawi

by Henry Neondo

The Government of Malawi on March 20 launched two new drought tolerant varieties in Balaka District, developed through joint efforts by Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

One of the varieties, an early maturing and dwarf variety with good pounding qualities will be included in the country’s national agricultural input subsidy program – credited with being the force behind the nation’s food self-sufficiency and Green Revolution.

The varieties will help farmers to increase and stabilize maize production, safeguarding their livelihoods, food security, and economic development despite rising food and fuel prices and climate change effects. The varieties – ZM 309 and ZM 523 – were developed for drought-prone areas with infertile soils in eastern and southern Africa . They are also resistant to maize streak virus, gray leaf spot, and other diseases.

The new varieties were launched yesterday by Dr. Andrew Daudi, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security at a field day in Balaka District – one of the target areas.

Maize is the most important cereal in Malawi, accounting for 70 percent of all the area planted to grain crops. In Malawi, as in most of sub-Saharan Africa, it is integral to food security, and the nationals typically say "when there is no maize, there is no food."

The annual per capita maize consumption of in Malawi is 300 kilos: the largest in the world. Maize production is mostly rainfed and threatened by frequent periods of poor rainfall. Climate change experts are predicting more frequent and severe droughts for the region with an estimated annual decline of 0.4 percent in maize productivity.

Malawi's Chitedze Research Station developed the varieties using seed and technical support from the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT, by its Spanish acronym), through the center's "Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA)" project . The varieties were tested in farmers’ fields and approved for release by Malawi's Agricultural Technology Clearing Committee.

“The farmers liked ZM 309 because of its early maturity," says Kesbell Kaonga, who heads the Maize Program at Chitedze Research Station in Lilongwe. "In fact, farmers compare the yield of both varieties to some commercial hybrids available on the market.” ZM 309 has a potential yield of 5 tons per hectare; while that of ZM 523 is 6 tons per hectare. Both are open pollinated varieties (OPV), meaning that farmers can save and re-use the seed optimally for up to 3 subsequent seasons; compared to hybrids which typically yield more than OPVs in the first season but cannot be recycled as they have a steeper decline in productivity.

Daudi, said, “We are grateful to CIMMYT for technical, financial and scientific support in developing these new varieties that are suitable for the drought prone areas and will help the people of Malawi to alleviate poverty and hunger and cope with climate change; which these days is becoming a reality. These varieties are drought tolerant, high yielding and resistant to diseases.”

He said farmers have embraced these new varieties and have even given them local names, meaning that they appreciate them, especially ZM 309, which is early maturing, resistant to leafy diseases and are dwarf – even children can harvest them. “ZM 309 is going to be included in the national subsidy program next year.”

These developments come at a time when Malawi is being looked to as an African success story due to its food self-sufficiency. It is also now a net exporter of maize to the region.

According to Wilfred Mwangi, Program Leader, Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa Project, the CIMMYT-Malawi projects will provide important lessonf to the rest of Africa. This success is owed to the country’s agricultural input subsidy program, initiated by the government in 2005 after Malawi experienced one of its worst harvests in years. Farmers are supplied with improved maize seed and fertilizer at subsidized prices and can choose either hybrid or OPV seed.

Use of improved maize seed and fertilizer has been responsible for the remarkable increase in agricultural productivity and associated bumper maize harvests, dubbed Malawi’s Green Revolution. Farmers are free to choose any suitable seed and with the encouraging preliminary results of ZM 309 and ZM 523 trials with farmers, it is only a matter of time before they will be demanding seed of these new varieties.

The DTMA Project is implementing an Innovation Learning Platform (ILeP) to address these challenges. Currently being piloted in Malawi’s Balaka District and led by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, with support from CIMMYT, the ILeP is a multi-stakeholder partnership that aims to ensure that smallholder farmers have access to agro-inputs, drought tolerant maize varieties, credit facilities and output markets to increase food security and improve productivity.

Through the ILeP seed companies, agro-dealers and micro-financial institutions will benefit by marketing their products to farmers. It involves researchers, extension agents, seed producers, agro-dealers, grain marketing companies, non-governmental organizations and micro-financial institutions.

Africa Science News Service

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