Paddy Roberts | January 13, 2014
Ansiira Nyirabagenzi pulls a few weeds from around the banana trees which ring her house before setting off, hoe on shoulder, to tend to her maize field. A narrow track winds down a steep slope before crossing a stream. Surrounded by lush vegetation, the thick, humid air means that she is quickly covered in a light sheen of perspiration.
On the other side of the stream, the path leads upwards to the six-acre communal garden that Mrs. Nyirabagenzi shares with 32 other women. There, the vibrant green maize plants stand up to three metres tall. Many stalks have produced up to four cobs, and their milky kernels are ripening in the morning sunshine.
Mrs. Nyirabagenzi is the chair of a women’s community listening group in the village of Nyabugando, about 30 kilometres from the town of Kagadi, in western Uganda. She says: “We listened to a program on the radio that explained about a new variety of maize. The grains have increased levels of protein. That means our children will eat better, and stay healthy.”
The new maize is known as Longe 5, and is also referred to as Quality Protein Maize, or QPM. Farmers in the district have started calling it Na Longo, which means “Mother of twins.” It is an apt name, as the maize produces almost twice the number of cobs per plant as traditional local varieties.
QPM contains a “complete” protein, with high levels of amino acids, which are essential in the diet. Ideally, people should eat a diverse diet which includes pulses, grains, and vegetables. But, where this is not possible, eating QPM instead of ordinary maize will provide a better balance of proteins. This can result in measureable health benefits for young children, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and the elderly, particularly in areas where maize consumption is high.
A local radio station, Kagadi-Kibale Community Radio, started to broadcast programs highlighting the benefits of improved nutrition before the start of the current planting season. The programs are part of a project run by Farm Radio International and funded by Irish Aid.
Mrs. Nyirabagenzi says, “The radio programs informed us that this maize would grow in the same way that our traditional seeds grow. So for no extra effort, our harvests will be higher.”
Mary Bakiine is also growing QPM. She says, “I am going to use it to make obushera [a local porridge]. I will feed it to my children for breakfast, and they’ll be able to study well at school.”
Godfrey Byabasaija has a plot of the new maize, and says it is growing well. He adds, “I plan to sell the maize for seed, as more people in the area want to grow it, and the supply of seeds is too little.”
On the other side of the district, in the village of Kabuga, Businge Navense shows off the plot in which she has been working with her friends. She points out the difference between the older, traditional varieties and the new, protein-rich Longe 5. The new maize plants she sowed at the same time as her old varieties are already supporting fat, healthy-looking cobs, while the traditional plants are barely flowering.
Mrs. Navense says, “We were told that we could expect a higher yield, but already we can see it in the fields. This harvest will make a difference to my family. We will be able to eat better and sell the surplus for a good price.”
Back in Nyabugando, Mrs. Nyirabagenzi surveys the field she shares with her group. She says, “I used to grow things to eat. I had no idea what it did nutritionally. I now understand that protein and vitamins are really important for my children. This maize will make us stronger.”