By Brenda Wawa
Maize plants damaged by fall armyworm in a farmer’s field in southern Malawi in Balaka District. CIMMYT/Christian Thierfelder.
Smallholder farmers in eastern and southern Africa are facing a new threat as a plague of intrepid fall armyworms creeps across the region, so far damaging an estimated 287,000 hectares of maize.
Since mid-2016, scientists with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and national agricultural research partners have been monitoring reports of sightings of the fall armyworm in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Surveys conducted in 2016 in farmers’ fields confirmed the pest is present in Kenya. The threat of the pest spreading into other eastern Africa countries is a significant risk since the region has similar planting seasons.
CIMMYT maize breeder, Thokozile Ndhlela (left), inspects a maize trial field with smallholder farmer, Otilia Chirova, in Mashonaland East, Zimbabwe. Photo: Johnson Siamachira/CIMMYT.
Little did 47-year-old Thokozile Ndhlela know that growing up in a rural area in Zimbabwe would inspire her to become a well-respected agricultural scientist, helping to transform agriculture by developing science-based solutions to some of the complex issues facing African farmers.
Currently a postdoctoral staff member with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, Ndhlela encourages girls to choose options that lead to careers in agriculture. Most farmers worldwide average an age of over 60, so Ndhlela’s work is also helping to encourage young people to get involved in agriculture.
Artificial inoculation of maize germplasm at the MLN screening site in Naivasha, Kenya. Photo: B. Wawa/CIMMYT.
The first screening activity for the 2017A planting cycle from March to May is set to begin in May 2017 at the joint Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO)–International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) maize lethal necrosis (MLN) artificial inoculation screening site at Naivasha, Kenya.
Deadline for interested private and public sector organizations to send their maize germplasm for screening is March 30, 2017 to enable processing imports and clear seed shipment that takes between six to eight weeks. Planting is due to start at the first week of May 2017.
Since its establishment in 2013 as a response to the MLN outbreak, the screening facility has so far screened over 60,000 entries from 16 private and public institutions including seed companies and national research organizations in Africa and beyond. The facility was established with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture.
By Busani Bafana
Apolonia Marutsvaka shows off her drought-tolerant, heat stress maize cobs. Photo: Johnson Siamachira/CIMMYT.
Apolonia 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.