Drought tolerant maize is good for farmers and business in Mali

Vincent Defait, v.defait@gmail.com

Excellent outcomes in farmers’ tests of drought tolerant maize in Mali—where rainless spells persistently wilt harvests and hopes—have increased the demand for maize seeds and raised the crop’s appeal.

Finishing his meal, 67-year-old Malian farmer Bakary Touré smiles and looks over his homestead’s courtyard where friends are eating a traditional corn paste. Some children watch; some women wash pots; a goat wanders among scrawny hens; and a donkey’s sporadic braying shakes the dusty afternoon. This is Kolokani, a village in the heart of a town of 7800 homes some 120 km north of Mali’s capital, Bamako.

“In September 2011, I had nothing to eat, so I sold my goats and chickens to feed my family,” says Touré, referring to a particularly poor harvest. As the head of a household of 22 people he was ready to abandon his homestead at the time but, as he says, “…Maize saved me.” On the advice of fellow farmers in a local cooperative in May 2012, Touré bought 20 kg of seeds of Brico, a drought tolerant (DT) variety with yellow kernels. Sown and managed using recommended practices, the US$15 purchase of seeds grew into a 1.6 t harvest that brought food security to Touré and his homestead. “I gave three bags to friends who will pay me back later,” he says, standing in front of his storage room. “With the 13 bags I have, I can feed my family for six months.”

Other Kolokani farmers have profited by producing and selling seeds of the DT varieties. Near a small warehouse that stores grain sacks, Oumar Traoré, president of the cooperative “The Good Seed”, remembers the first trials with the varieties. “We usually grew more groundnut and sorghum,” he says, “but when we learned that this maize was profitable and drought tolerant, we wanted to try it.” He and his peers grew it on small areas the first year but soon expanded their plots. “The following 2 years, I produced 6 t of maize, mainly to sell as seeds,” Traoré says, as his friends nod in agreement. “It brought me 1.5 million FCFA ($2900) and I bought cows and a motorcycle. Today, our main problem is the cost and availability of mineral fertilizer on the market. If we cannot buy enough in a timely manner, we have to cut back the maize area,” says Traoré. Despite this, he says that production of DT maize allows him to easily feed his family with 13 members and sell seeds for as much as $1/kg.

A new movement toward maize
That maize can save the day is surprising news in Kolokani where the yearly rainfall, 600 mm or less, has favored more water-sparing crops, such as sorghum, groundnut, and sesame. But Bakary Touré and Oumar Traoré are among thousands of Malian farmers taking up DT maize varieties.
“Mali is one of the countries in West Africa where maize production has expanded into areas where drought stress occurs intermittently,” says Abebe Menkir, IITA’s Maize Breeder, who works with Mali’s Institute of Rural Economy (IER) to develop DT maize varieties and make them available to farmers. “With these varieties, Mali has the opportunity to expand maize production into areas where it was not possible before because of droughts.”

“In Mali, DT maize could revolutionize the lives of farmers,” says N’Tji Coulibaly, an IER agronomist and head of its maize research program who is testing and promoting the new varieties with farmers. Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa of 15.5 million inhabitants. Less than 4% of the land is arable; 8 of every 10 citizens are engaged in agriculture or fishing around the Niger River. Since the mid-1990s, domestic maize production and consumption have grown significantly, based on the crop’s high yield potential and responsiveness to fertilizer, its capacity to alleviate food deficits, as well as its export potential and value for processing and food industries. “The introduction of DT maize seeds can speed the attainment of the Government’s main objective of food sufficiency for Malian farmers.”

Smallholder farmers earn a surplus by growing seeds
The varieties that Coulibaly and Menkir test and promote are products of the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) project, implemented since 2006 by IITA and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffet Foundation, USAID, and the British Department for International Development.
In the IER office in Bamako, Coulibaly traces the beginnings of the DTMA project in Mali. “We worked with farmers to select the best seeds, those that adapt best to areas where drought is endemic,” he says. “From 2009, two early maturing open-pollinated varieties were released that farmers have dubbed Brico, the name of a town in Mali, and Jorobana, which means “no worries” in the Bambara language. In areas where drought can reduce production by 70%, DT maize is a godsend. Ideally, we should introduce one or two new DT varieties each year.”

IER also helps to teach farmers the skills and know-how to produce certified seeds. Among other things, this requires them to follow a schedule for applying fertilizer, weeding the plots, and maintaining enough separation between maize crops to avoid cross-pollination.

Best and timely practices
Coulibaly describes a series of marketing challenges that need to be addressed. “We must find a way to produce more basic seeds,” he says, referring to the seeds that are multiplied by companies and other commercial seed producers. “In particular, it is often necessary (for someone) to quickly buy the seeds the farmers produce because without money (from those sales), they have nothing to eat; they cannot wait for a potential buyer to knock on their door.” Coulibaly adds that, by the same token, farmers are not able to plan well for their own needs over the medium term. “In general, when a drought is looming, they all want DT seeds at the same time.”

These considerations do not seem to have reached Tanabougou, a village where only the minaret of the tiny mosque stands over the lot of concessions. The capital is only 40 miles away, but to get there one first needs to reach the paved road along a track on which only a few vehicles raise clouds of sand. Run down and often closed businesses in the city of Koulikoro, the capital of the eponymous region, give the impression that there has never been any impact on life in the villages. The Niger River is close, but it seems to belong to another world. In Tanabougou, it is the rain that supplies water to the crops. Animals, mainly goats and donkeys, crop the residues of harvest and the few tufts of grass under the trees.

In his banco concession where bright yellow maize cobs dry on a nga, a wooden roof and branches, another farmer, Benkeba Traoré, 56, says, “With traditional maize varieties, I was producing about 300 kg per year. Last year, with the drought tolerant variety Brico, I produced 2 t of maize and sold 800 kg as seeds to Faso Kaba, a seed business owned by a woman entrepreneur.” In two seasons Benkeba Traoré, who has to feed four adults and 12 children from 3.5 ha, was able to buy a pair of oxen and a plow, “Soon,” he says, “I will replace the branches which surround the concession with corrugated iron.”

The progress was also made possible by the training provided by the agronomists of IER and the technicians of Faso Kaba. For the past 3 years, the farmer has learned to isolate his seed production from other plots, to meet deadlines when spreading fertilizer, to recognize the quality of the soil, and to sow suitable seed varieties.

Rotating crops
When asked if he was not tempted to abandon the other crops, given the high yield of DT maize and the money it generates, farmer Traoré replies, “Last year, I reduced the area of sorghum and groundnut in favor of maize. Sorghum was a failure and maize saved me. But next year, it may be the other way round, so I prefer to continue to grow more cereal crops.”

The farmer now hopes to marry off his two oldest children and buy a motorcycle (about 300,000 FCFA or US$580) to travel to the village. “Today, I have no problems with the soudure,” Traore insists. All farmers in West Africa know about this difficult time between the end of the stock and the next harvest.

Lassana Diakite, 64, is reassured too. He chairs the cooperative from Koula, a neighboring village at the center of a little town with 25,000 inhabitants, several hours walk from the marketplace. Sitting on a wooden bench in the shade of a tree overlooking his concession, the farmer describes in a serious voice the various stages of maize cropping. “From plowing to sowing and harvesting, each step is recorded. I know when I need to weed, when I have to spread fertilizer, when I have to harvest … I even know my yields in advance. ” That is a lot of advantages for this head of a family of 35 people who inhabit parts of the banco concession.

In the first year, the farmer used 1.5 of his 12 ha for production of Jorobana seeds. The result: 1.7 t of maize harvested. Three years later, production has climbed to 4.6 t. “Drought tolerant maize beats conventional maize as the horse beats the donkey,” asserts the farmer.

The next tcheba seeds…
Looking at the nga, where the sun shines on his maize spread like gold nuggets, the farmer adds, “Next year I will sow 3 or 4 ha.” It is impossible for him to devote all his 12 ha to maize. “I do not have the labor,” he continues. “I would have to stagger the fields and interventions and that would compromise performance.”

Diakité acknowledges his new comforts, the oxen he recently acquired, the taxes he pays “with ease,” the education of his children, which is now more affordable, and the fertilizer for the sorghum that he can buy with the money generated by maize.

Back in Bamako, in his office at IER, Coulibaly dreams of the next generation of DT maize varieties. His team has just completed tests on hybrid varieties which are more productive. In 2013, Malian farmers should be able to grow the Tcheba variety meaning ‘big’ in Bambara. The agronomist said, “In Mali, with DT maize, we can speak of a success story…

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