Photo: Christopher Bendana
Unprecedented droughts have hit Uganda’s farmers hard in recent years, affecting household income and food security by drastically cutting maize yields, a staple crop in the country. In 2016, at least 1.3 million people in Uganda faced hunger and urgently needed food aid after a dry spell decimated harvests, leaving some with less than one meal per day. When MLN, a maize disease with the ability to cause extreme or complete crop loss in maize, arrived in Uganda in 2013, farmers needed a variety that could cope.
A farmer shucks cobs of hybrid maize in Malawi. Photo: Peter Lowe/CIMMYT.
The agricultural research sector is taking aim at a longtime foe of African smallholder farmers — old seeds.
More than 100 research partners and funders will meet in Kampala, Uganda from Jan. 30 to Feb. 1, 2017 to discuss ways to encourage Africa’s seed sector to replace old maize varieties with new, robust and more resilient varieties and help smallholders realize yield potential amid climate change challenges.
The meeting, to be opened by Hon. Vincet Bamulangaki Sempiija, Uganda’s minister of agriculture, marks the first anniversary of the launch of the Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa (STMA) project. STMA was launched in Africa to help smallholders mitigate the impact of combined multiple stresses affecting maize farming, including, heat, drought, poor soil fertility, Striga and such diseases as Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN), Gray leaf spot, Turcicum leaf blight among others.
In September 2011, reports came of a devastating new maize disease in the Southern Rift Valley of Kenya. The symptoms were described as mottling of the leaves, small cobs with few grains, and necrosis of young leaves leading to “dead heart” and eventually plant death. It was common for affected fields to show 100 percent infection rates, meaning that some farmers faced losing the entire crop.
By October 2012, a study team sent by CIMMYT and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) confirmed the disease to be maize lethal necrosis (MLN).
Sub-Saharan African farmers typically apply less than 20 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare of cropland — far less than their peers in any other region of the world. In 2014, partners in the Improved Maize for African Soils (IMAS) project developed 41 Africa-adapted maize varieties that respond better to low amounts of nitrogen fertilizer and are up for release in nine African countries through 24 seed companies.