As tem­per­a­tures soar, Zim­babwe’s farm­ers test maize that can cope

Chronicle (Zimbabwe) - - Opinion/feature - Bu­sani Bafana

ZAKA DISTRICT, Zim­babwe — Aplo­nia Marutsvaka looks tri­umphant as she shows off one of her three bags of gleam­ing white maize.

She har­vested the grain in the midst of a drought and sap­ping heat that charred many other types of crop.

The se­cret of her suc­cess­ful har­vest is sim­ple: A type of maize seed that has been bred to tol­er­ate high tem­per­a­tures.

“It has never been this hot, but (this) va­ri­ety of maize per­forms well in the heat,” said the 62-year-old Marutsvaka. “I am pre­par­ing my maize field to plant it again.”

Marutsvaka is hope­ful the new va­ri­ety will con­tinue to en­sure her a har­vest even as tem­per­a­tures soar above 30 de­grees Cel­sius here in Masvingo Prov­ince and across Zim­babwe.

Maize is the key in­gre­di­ent for sadza, a stiff por­ridge that is the na­tional sta­ple food. Wor­ried about the pro­jected im­pact of in­creas­ing heat on maize as a re­sult of cli­mate change, re­searchers at the In­ter­na­tional Maize and Wheat Im­prove­ment Cen­tre (CIMMYT) and the Re­search Pro­gramme on Maize of CGIAR, a global agri­cul­tural re­search or­gan­i­sa­tion, have bred heat-tol­er­ant va­ri­eties of maize.

The seeds, de­vel­oped over the past five years with fund­ing from the US Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment, have been tri­alled by farm­ers in Al­ge­ria, Egypt, Malawi, South Africa, Zam­bia and Zim­babwe.

For more than five years, drought-tol­er­ant seeds have been avail­able through a part­ner­ship be­tween CIMMYT and the Drought Tol­er­ant Maize for Africa project.

Used in com­bi­na­tion with good agri­cul­tural prac­tices, they have per­formed bet­ter than other hy­brid seeds, their back­ers say.

FAC­ING HEAT AND DROUGHT The new heat-tol­er­ant seeds also have drought­tol­er­ant char­ac­ter­is­tics, mak­ing them espe­cially at­trac­tive to farm­ers in semi-arid ar­eas like Zim­babwe’s Masvingo Prov­ince which re­ceives no more than 600mm of rain­fall an­nu­ally. Marutsvaka is one of the farm­ers who have tested the new maize va­ri­ety, and she says it has worked in her fields.

“In the last two sea­sons, I got noth­ing from my field,” she ex­plained.

“All the maize plants shriv­elled in the heat. But this sea­son I har­vested three 50kg bags and two 20-litre tins (40kg) of white maize.

“The flour pounds well and the sadza tastes so good,” she added.

Farmer Karikoga Muromo har­vested 200kg of maize last sea­son us­ing the heat-tol­er­ant seeds. He said the new va­ri­ety works best when com­bined with farm­ing prac­tices such as plant­ing the seeds on raised ridges of soil and keep­ing a care­ful record of rain­fall pat­terns to know the best time to plant.

Maize ac­counts for 90 per­cent of the an­nual cropped area in Zim­babwe, but pro­duc­tion has been af­fected by the drought af­flict­ing most of south­ern Africa. The United Na­tions World Food Pro­gramme forecasts that maize pro­duc­tion will fall be­low 60 per­cent of the fiveyear av­er­age in Zim­babwe.

This year Masvingo Prov­ince, in south­east Zim­babwe, has lost over 5 000 cat­tle to drought, and more than 500 000 peo­ple are in need of food aid.

Vil­lagers are sur­viv­ing on food hand­outs, cash trans­fers for food from lo­cal non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions and a govern­ment food-for-work pro­gramme.

Ac­cord­ing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Cli­mate Change, tem­per­a­tures are in­creas­ing in Africa and the past three decades have been the warm­est on record.

Stud­ies con­ducted in 2011 by the CGIAR Re­search Pro­gram on Cli­mate Change, Agri­cul­ture and Food Se­cu­rity (CCAFS) iden­ti­fied heat stress as a ma­jor threat to maize har­vests in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa, a prob­lem ex­ac­er­bated by drought and low soil fer­til­ity.

Re­cent re­search by CCAFS and the Univer­sity of Leeds has shown that warm­ing is out­pac­ing crop breed­ing in Africa.

“Part of the rea­son for this is the long time it takes (around 20 years on av­er­age) to pro­duce a new va­ri­ety, get it ap­proved, through mar­kets and into farm­ers’ hands,” said An­drew Challi­nor, a sci­en­tist with CCAFS.

“By the time the va­ri­eties be­ing cur­rently de­vel­oped are in the fields, they will be mis­matched to the av­er­age tem­per­a­tures they ex­pe­ri­ence.”

A maize re­searcher at CIMMYT, Jill Cairns, said the cen­tre’s sci­en­tists have cut the breed­ing time for new crop va­ri­eties by up to five years, which should en­able them to have the heat-tol­er­ant seeds in the farm­ers’ hands by 2018.

BUT WILL THEY BE USED? But cre­at­ing seeds that work doesn’t guar­an­tee they will be used. En­niah Tiri­vaviri, an ex­ten­sion of­fi­cer in Zim­babwe’s Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture, said many riska­verse farm­ers pre­fer to use seeds they are fa­mil­iar with.

But the heat-tol­er­ant seeds have changed minds in Zaka District, con­vinc­ing many farm­ers that maize can be a vi­able crop un­der drought con­di­tions, par­tic­u­larly since the heat-tol­er­ant seeds cost no more than con­ven­tional ones.

“In the past it was sen­si­ble for farm­ers to grow the hy­brids they knew, but now that the cli­mate has changed, it is time for farm­ers to change too,” said Cos­mos Magorokosho, a CIMMYT sci­en­tist.

Lo­cal com­pa­nies that al­ready dis­trib­ute drought­tol­er­ant seed ex­pect a boom in sales with the com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of heat-tol­er­ant va­ri­eties.

Man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Zim­babwe Su­per Seeds, Nel­son Mun­yaka, said heat-tol­er­ant va­ri­eties will im­prove food se­cu­rity in ar­eas like Zaka District threat­ened by un­pre­dictable weather.

Farmer Marutsvaka’s suc­cess with the heat-tol­er­ant seed has in­spired her neigh­bours, who now want to try it as well.

“I want these seeds be­cause there is as­sur­ance of a har­vest even when the tem­per­a­tures are high, like in our district,” said farmer Love­ness Man­jeru. — Thomson Reuters Foun­da­tion .

Ap­polo­nia Marutsvaka shows off her drought-tol­er­ant maize cobs har­vested through a CIMMYT project.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Zimbabwe

© PressReader. All rights reserved.