MAKUTUPORA, Tanzania (AlertNet) – Balisidya Jacob has been farming for many years, but it’s the novelty and size of his new crop of maize that is making him smile.
The 56-year-old, who is sole breadwinner for an extended family of 17 children, is happy at the prospect of being able to feed them all, thanks to an experiment with drought-resistant seed.
Although maize is a staple crop in Tanzania, farmers in Makutupora, a village 27 km (17 miles) north of the capital, Dodoma, are more used to growing millet, sorghum and legumes. Tanzania’s great central plateau, which sprawls across Dodoma, Singida and parts of Tabora regions, has suffered from drought for years, and maize has not been widely cultivated here because it cannot withstand the arid conditions.
But as part of an international research project dubbed Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), Jacob and his neighbours are now using five varieties of maize seed that are being tested in an effort increase food production and help farmers adapt to the effects of climate change.
“I was not sure these seeds would be any good, but it’s amazing - they require little water and they grow fast,” said Jacob.
FAST-GROWING, DROUGHT RESISTANT
WEMA’s lead researcher in Tanzania, Barnabas Kiula, said that one of the maize varieties being introduced, situka, can be grown in arid conditions and could be ready for harvest in just 75 days. Most maize varieties require at least 90 days to mature.
Kiula added that the new varieties are expected to increase yields by up to 50 percent compared with maize seeds that are not drought-tolerant.
Makutupora’s village chairman, Juma Gambo, said it took him less than three months for his crop to grow fully, despite the dry conditions.
“In this area the rainy season is very short but despite that I managed to get 27 bags of maize using these new seeds,” he said. “My maize plants had wilting leaves but researchers assured me it was okay.”
Marijani Mrisho planted situka seeds on his one-acre (0.4 hectare) farm in Makutupora in November of last year.
“It was very dry but the researchers told us to sow them,” he said. “I did not have to do any irrigation yet the seedlings looked good.”
Mrisho added that a short period of rains in December helped the maize to grow, and he was able to harvest it in early February, three months after planting.
“I have filled up 30 bags of maize this season on my small farm. If I used normal seeds I could hardly get five bags. That’s why most farmers here shunned the crop initially,” he said.
WEMA is a public-private partnership coordinated by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, a non-governmental organization which works to support poor farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. WEMA is being implemented in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique and South Africa, countries whose national agricultural research systems are contributing their expertise in breeding, field testing, seed multiplication and distribution.
Makutupora, where the project started in 2010, plays host to WEMA’s research centre in Tanzania. The research facility offers the opportunity for the villagers to exchange ideas with researchers.
“Some villagers were (initially) unwilling to come here to learn,” said Juma Gambo. “They thought the researchers were probably aiming to grab their land … (but) they now see the benefits.”
Makutupora’s farmers are receiving the new seeds free while different varieties are being tested. The researchers say villagers will eventually pay a subsidized rate of 200 Tanzanian shillings (about $0.13) per kilo.
Kiula, the WEMA researcher, said that the pressing need for food security in the region led to the decision to experiment with introducing maize to areas which have not traditionally grown the crop.
“People are dying of hunger in this area. They live by food handouts every single year,” he said. “We hope that drought-tolerant maize could reverse this situation.”
Farmers in Makutupora said they no longer care what crop they grow and eat, as long as it produces enough.
Across some areas of Africa, increasingly drought-hit farmers are being urged to move away from maize toward more drought-tolerant crops such as sorghum. But maize is a favoured staple in many countries in southern and eastern Africa, so the creation of more resilient varieties potentially could allow communities to both deal with worsening drought and avoid changing their traditional diet.
“We believe that the success of this project means that 14 to 21 million people we are targeting in five countries will have enough (maize) to eat and sell,” Kiula said.
Hassan Mshinda, director-general of the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology, which is coordinating WEMA activities in the country, said that affordable, drought-resistant varieties of staple crops will be important for dealing not only with climate change but also general poor growing conditions and low yields in some African countries.
“Better seeds are beyond the reach of most farmers in rural areas and they are often not the suitable varieties,” he said. “The introduction of drought-resistant varieties of maize will raise productivity.”
Kizito Makoye is a Tanzanian journalist based in Dar es Salaam.