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December 30, 2010

African 'culture of maize' works against climate adaptation

by Jennifer Dube

An entrenched “culture of maize” is hampering efforts to help Africa cope with climate change, experts said at the sidelines of early December climate talks in Mexico.

Speaking at an Agriculture Day on the sidelines of the United Nations climate change conference, agriculture experts said despite a consensus that changing weather patterns are contributing to deteriorating maize yields, diversification into other grains like sorghum and millet remains low.

“Our problem in Africa is that we attach too much value to maize as food,” said Blessing Chinsinga, science and research lecturer with Chancellor College University of Malawi. “While politicians equate the availability of maize to food security, a family without maize in the farming communities is associated with vulnerability.

“If you have millet or sorghum, many will still think you are desperate because you do not have maize.”

Maize is the most widely grown staple crop in drought-prone Africa, with more than 300 million people estimated to depend on it as their main staple. But the continent’s vulnerability to drought makes farming risky for millions of small-scale farmers who rely on rainfall to water their crops. The maize crop is usually severely affected and experts say climate change will only worsen the problem.

“But we have always had an option”, said Mclay Kanyangarara, climate change advisor for the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa. “Maize is an introduced crop and the small grains have always been our traditional indigenous crops, which are better suited to our climate. Maize is also more capital intensive, requiring a lot of fertilizer and pesticides and we need to realise that we cannot force it to grow.”

Kanyangarara said many people were also reluctant to plant small crops despite scientific evidence that they are healthier than maize, the reason why Western countries that grow maize still use small grains like wheat for breakfast cereals and children’s food.

Chinsinga said a study carried out in Malawi,Tanzania and Kenya showed that some farmers are discouraged by the size of their farms or plots.

“With good conditions … a farmer requires a bigger piece of land to produce half of what they can get from maize,” he said. “That is a discouraging factor. There also are no lucrative markets for alternative crops. There is no value addition to these alternative crops unlike in other countries where they are used in making breakfast cereals, beer and chicken feed.”

Chinsinga said some people also do not like the physiology of both sorghum and millet which makes them more labour intensive compared to maize. He said such things as having to scare away birds when the crop starts having grain are also obstacles to their adoption.

A small-scale farmer from Malawi, Dyborn Chibonga, said the experts’ observations may be partially true for Malawi although there are some people in drier regions who do not have maize as a staple food.

As a farmer, Chibonga does not see himself dropping maize even in light of climate change.

“Maize is still a staple for this generation, but it will not be for the next generation as they are getting used to eating rice, pasta and bread among other food items,” he said. “But the vagaries of climate change are dictating that we diversify.

“In the case of the National Smallholder Farmers Association of Malawi, we encourage members to diversify with cassava and sweet potatoes which are more drought tolerant.

“Diversification is not failing but is on its way. Farmers have realised that the weather patterns have become more unpredictable from year to year, even within the season, and diversification is one way they are still learning to use for adaptation.”

Chinsinga said the collapse of public crop breeding systems due to lack of investment over the years in many countries was contributing to the problem. Profit-driven foreign seed companies, he said, had taken over the local seed market and will continue selling maize to make money even aware of the fact that it is getting increasingly difficult for many to grow it.

“The situation now requires strong government will and determination to revive the national crop breeding systems,” he said. “Together with other stakeholders, the governments should identify suitable alternative crops that would also be attractive to farmers.”

Drought tolerance has been recognised as one of the most important targets of crop improvement programs in Africa. To this end, some organisations from the continent are currently developing drought-tolerant maize using conventional breeding and scientific methods under a private-public partnership called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA).

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