Helping smallholder farmers reap the most from drought tolerant maize

Florence Sipalla, f.sipalla@cgiar.org

At the first sign of the short rain season, farmers know that it is time to till the land and plant. In these harsh times, when rain is scarce, some farmers opt to plant before the rain comes to take advantage of every drop. James Mativo from Makaveti Village in Kyanzasu sublocation in Machakos County is one such farmer. He proudly http://iupatdc5.org displays a healthy crop to visitors, with green maize ready for plucking. “I planted just before the season began, to ensure that the crop would sprout when the rain came,” he explains.

For many farmers in the semi-arid Eastern Province in Kenya, preparing fields ahead of the rain is not enough to guarantee a good harvest. Having the right seeds is vital too. Mativo buys certified seeds, suited to the area’s climate, from Dryland Seed Company in Machakos town. “For these dryland varieties, the first rains are very important,” explains Peter Mutua, a Dryland agronomist. “It allows the farmers to take full advantage of this scarce resource from germination. This is particularly important as most farmers in Kenya grow maize under rainfed conditions, even in the semi-arid areas.”

Just as a relay race is a team effort, so is the process of delivering quality seeds to farmers. It takes many people, working together, to ensure that farmers get the best seeds suited to the climatic conditions in their locales. Take the case of drought tolerant maize varieties: the process starts with breeders who develop the germplasm and share it with research partners. They pass the baton to the seed companies who produce large quantities of the seeds which smaller-scale farmers buy from them. The companies cross-pollinate sources of desirable traits to develop maize varieties relevant to the farmers. Often they start with sources from public research organizations such as IITA and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT.

“We try to improve the existing varieties and come up with more that are better than those in the market,” says Peter Setimela, a CIMMYT maize breeder. “With climate change, varieties developed 20 years ago are no longer suitable for the changing environment.” Breeders working under the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa Initiative led by CIMMYT have developed varieties known as the Kenya Dryland Varieties (KDV) series. KDV 1–6 varieties were released to farmers by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), as well as Freschco and Dryland Seed Companies. The fourth variety of the series is the one now growing on Mativo’s quarter-hectare farm.

It is not only climate change that concerns breeders; they also want to develop varieties that are disease resistant and relevant to the farmers’ other needs – proper milling and cooking quality or flavor, for example. “This is why we have farm trials,” explains Peter Setimela. These trials are done in collaboration with the national research organizations, such as KARI in Kenya. “We look for those traits that farmers prefer. In Kenya, they like white maize for making ugali. In Zimbabwe, some people prefer ZM309 because it is sweet when roasted.”

The seed companies and KARI multiply seeds to furnish supplies adequate to the farmers’ demands, but they also depend on farmers they hire to produce those seeds. “We work with groups of farmers who each have at least 5 acres (2.5 ha),” says Ngila Kimotho, Managing Director of Dryland Seed Company. The seed company clusters the farmers by sublocation and trains them. This, according to Musa Juma, a contract farmer for Dryland in Kibwezi, Eastern Province, is “risk-free planting. This is because you are planting for a known market; as you plant, you don’t have to start worrying about where to sell the produce. An additional perk is that the company provides the seeds.”

Seed companies also use local demonstration farms to show the performance of various maize varieties, winning over farmers to the new varieties that outperform traditional ones. Dryland Seed Company also uses vernacular radio programs to disseminate information on the most productive varieties. “These are interactive shows. We have farmers calling in to find out the best variety to grow, when and where to obtain the seeds,” explains Kimotho. He said that farmers prefer open-pollinated varieties that are early-maturing and drought tolerant and thus better suited to planting in the short rains in the region.

“The basic need in the dry areas is food security,” says Kimotho, adding that farmers sell the surplus grain only when they have a rare bumper harvest. To cater for the diversified market, Dryland markets seeds in packets from 100 g to 1 kg, so there is an affordable option for every farmer. The 100 g package is popular with those who are keen to try out new varieties. “Even students buy it for their parents to try,” says Kimotho. Smallholder farmers, most of whom are women, also choose this option to ensure a subsistence maize crop for their families.

By the same token, farmers are reluctant to place all their trust in a single variety. On Mativo’s farm, he spreads the risk by planting hybrids alongside beans and cowpea. “When the rains are good, the hybrids do well and have high yields, but if the rains are not so good, I still have food from the KDV,” says Mativo. “It would be very sad for a farmer to lack food. When I have food, then my neighbors are also food secure.” Mativo uses ox-drawn plows on his farm, but he also occasionally employs a few manual laborers, some of whom he pays in kind with maize grain, at their request.

In the rare years that farmers get a bumper harvest, they need to sell the surplus. But when there is a plentiful supply, the price of maize is low, and storage becomes an even more vital component of the value chain: the grain requires a pest-free mechanism that also saves the http://dailykhabarnama.com/buy/ maize from fungal infections, some of which can produce deadly toxins.

Ultimately, every participant in this value chain, the relay race, is focused on one thing–food security. “Working with partners in the national agricultural systems and seed companies, the DTMA program aims to produce 70,000 t of seeds by 2016 with drought tolerant maize varieties in 13 African countries,” said Tsedeke Abate, the Program Leader based in Nairobi. He added that this is enough to plant about 2.8 million ha, an area equivalent to the farms of about 7 million smallholder households.

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