Amazing maize: Investment in agricultural research pays off

Maize is a major food staple in sub-Saharan Africa. Photo by IITA.
Maize is a major food staple in sub-Saharan Africa. Photo by IITA.

Researchers have shown that investment in maize research in West and Central Africa pays off. A study by IITA’s agricultural economists reveals that the generation and diffusion of modern maize varieties in the last three decades have lifted more than one million people in sub-Saharan Africa out of poverty.

Over half of this impact can be attributed to international maize research at IITA and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

This was reported in a brief by the Standing Panel on Impact Assessment of the Independent Science and Partnership Council. The brief was based on the paper by Alene et al. (2009), who estimated the economic and poverty reduction impacts of international maize research in West and Central Africa from 1971 to 2005.

Based on data obtained from IITA’s financial reports and the FAOSTAT database, a total of US$308 million was invested in maize research between 1971 and 2005, with international maize research accounting for about 66% ($204 million).

Maize research in West and Central Africa had been conducted by IITA, CIMMYT, and partners that include the national agricultural research systems (NARS). IITA, which has had a regional mandate for maize improvement since 1980, started maize research around 1970. With its partners, IITA had developed high-yielding varieties with increased tolerance for multiple biotic and abiotic stresses. As a result, these varieties have contributed to changing the status of maize from a minor crop to one of the most significant food and cash crops in the region.

Breeding programs at IITA and CIMMYT have been the major sources of germplasm for the released varieties, supplying 90% of the germplasm in the 1970s, 60% in the 1980s and 1990s, and 85% since the late 1990s. IITA currently supplies nearly 70% of the germplasm in the region, with little or no further improvement before the release.

In Nigeria, which accounts for nearly half the maize area in the region, 60% of the maize areas were planted to modern varieties in 2005. The total maize area tripled from 2.6 million ha in 1981 to more than 7 million ha in 2005, with the area under modern varieties rising sharply from 111,000 ha to 4.2 million ha. Adoption figures estimated from the early 1980s onwards suggest a steady growth in adoption in the region.

Why maize?
First, maize grows in a wide range of production environments, making it an important source of home-produced food. Secondly, it is a desirable cash crop, providing farmers with income and keeping market processes affordable for the urban poor. Thirdly, resource-poor farmers are able to adopt the predominantly open-pollinated modern varieties without having to buy fresh seeds each season.

Maize processing. Photo by SP-IPM.
Maize processing. Photo by SP-IPM.

Based on the germplasm, international maize research moved between 300,000 and 500,000 out of poverty each year. It is estimated that every $1 million invested in maize research by IITA lifted between 35,000 and 50,000 people out of poverty. With the involvement of NARS in maize improvement work, national programs have also significantly contributed to poverty reduction efforts in the region, with over $100 million being invested since 1970.

Thus, the total net benefit from international and national maize research in the region for 1981–2005 is estimated at $6.8 billion, equivalent to 12% of the present value of total maize production over the same period. Annual net benefits increased from $43 million in 1981 to >$400 million in 2005, with an annual average of $274 million (in 2000 constant prices).

Maize improvement research in the region had a benefit-cost ratio of 21. This means that every dollar invested in maize research generated additional food worth $21. Estimates for country-level benefit-cost ratio ranged from 11 in Mali to 84 in Nigeria, with an average rate of return of 43% in West and Central Africa.

Bottom line
Maize research has generated a stream of benefits in the region, and is thus considered a worthwhile investment. This underlines the importance of international research.

Study results also suggest that poverty in the region could have been much worse had there been no research and improvement in maize yields, when pest and disease pressure, the decline in soil fertility, and expansion into marginal lands are considered.

Research on nonyield benefits, such as drought-tolerant maize and varieties for better nutrition, for example, may even show greater benefits, according to the study.

Maize research will continue to be a powerful factor in reducing poverty, according to the brief. However, impacts of research investments are conditioned by farmers’ access to inputs, such as fertilizer, credit, seeds, extension and input-supply systems, and market infrastructure.

Alene AD, A Menkir, S Ajala, B Badu-Appraku, A Olanrewaju, V Manyong, and A Ndiaye. 2009. The economic and poverty impacts of maize research in West and Central Africa. Agricultural Economics 40: 535–550.

CGIAR. 2010. Improved maize benefits millions of Africa’s poor. Standing Panel on Impact Assessment, Independent Science and Partnership Council. CGIAR, Washington D.C., USA. 4 pp.