Nelly Bassily | September 20, 2010
In Malawi, poor rains in recent years have left many farmers struggling to produce good yields of maize. Yet farmer Bamusi Stambuli managed to nearly double his yield this year. He and his wife Sagulani harvested nearly two tonnes of maize from their two-thirds of a hectare plot. The variety they planted was called ZM 309. It’s a new drought-tolerant variety developed specifically for Malawi’s drought-prone areas and infertile soils.
ZM 309 is a conventionally-bred variety. It is not genetically engineered. Along with another variety, ZM 523, it was developed by the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa Initiative, together with breeders from Malawi’s Chitedze Research Station.
Dr. Wilfred Mwangi leads the initiative. He says, “In Malawi, each adult eats 300 kilos of maize annually, and ZM 309 and ZM 523 will give farmers a boost in safeguarding their maize harvests from the increasing threat of drought.”
The two varieties were officially launched in March 2009, and introduced to farmers in the Balaka area by local extension agents. Yields have been good in demonstration plots. Farmers say that the two varieties have higher yields, mature earlier, and are better for pounding into flour than other popular commercial varieties.
The higher yields mean that Mr. Stambuli will save at least 330 American dollars (about 250 Euros) that he would have spent to purchase maize for his family this year. Many farmers have visited Mr. Stambuli since his success with ZM 309. He says, “I will now be able to feed my family for a whole year.” He and his wife care for seven children and five grandchildren.
Joseph Jojo Baidu-Forson is a scientist at Bioversity International’s Sub-Saharan Africa office in Kenya. He says that the maize varieties are an important development for food security. “But the development of the drought-tolerant maize does not in any way take away the focus on other crops, particularly indigenous and neglected food plants, such as leafy vegetables, which are needed to complement nutrients from maize.”
ZM 309 and ZM 523 are open-pollinated varieties. This means that farmers can save seed from one season and plant it for up to three following seasons, without large losses in yield. Open-pollinated varieties are not usually as attractive to commercial seed companies as hybrid seeds. Farmers have to buy hybrids every season or risk poor yields.
Dr. Mwangi believes that farmers adopt a new crop variety if it offers distinct advantages. But farmers still face difficulties obtaining improved seeds. They don’t know about new varieties, or they cannot afford them. Mwangi says, “It is very important for everyone at all points in the value chain to coordinate their efforts so that we address the challenges that in the past have made it very difficult for many African farmers to obtain seed of improved crop varieties.”
There are already positive signs. Dellings Phiri is Managing Director of Seed Co. Malawi, a leading seed company in southern Africa. He says, “The climate is changing, rainfall is decreasing, and the weather is now dictating which varieties farmers grow, and in turn what varieties seed companies produce.” Seed Co. is changing its business model and investing in producing enough seed of both new varieties to meet increased demand from farmers.