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.
“With consistently impressive harvests thanks to DT maize varieties, I’m always assured that my family will have enough food, and I can earn a decent income from selling some grain,” said Piri, a smallholder farmer in Petauke District, Zambia. Photo: CIMMYT/Rodney Lunduka.
Drought-related challenges in Africa call for proactive interventions rather than reactive ones. Every so often a drought hits, jolting the development community into action, and leading to the delivery of food aid to millions of people facing starvation — beneficial efforts in the short term, but futile for achieving lasting change.
CIMMYT maize seed system specialist James Gethi inspects a maize field in Nzega, Tanzania. Photo: Kelah Kaimenyi/CIMMYT.
Maize is not only a staple in diets across sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) – it is a cash crop that supports millions of farmer households. Maize is grown on over 33 million hectares in just 13 of 48 SSA countries – accounting for 72% of all maize produced in the region. This crop, without a doubt, is king.
However, rising temperatures and erratic rainfall patterns threaten maize production across the continent. Total crop loss occurs if there’s little or no rainfall at the flowering stage, when maize is most vulnerable. And when temperatures increase, soil moisture is quickly depleted and farmers have to resort to prolonged irrigation, a costly undertaking for smallholders.
Drought-tolerant (DT) maize varieties produce better yields both in good and bad seasons compared to most commercial varieties available in the region. Since 2006, CIMMYT has developed 200 drought-tolerant varieties and hybrids, many of which also possess desirable traits such as resistance to major diseases.