Adoption and impact of climate smart maize varieties in southern Africa

Seed for sale in Luchenza, Malawi (B.Baulch/IFPRI Malawi, 2018)

The economies of many African countries depend on the agricultural sector. However, the sector has performed poorly in recent years, posing challenges to countries’ development goals of ensuring food security and reducing poverty. This is due in part to over-dependence on rain-fed agriculture, as well as climate change and variability. Droughts can severely impact crop yields, which Malawi has seen firsthand in recent years, but heat alone can cause yield losses as well. A combination of the two has the potential to be devastating, particularly when drought hits before key stages of plant growth, for example before and during the flowering and grain-filling stages in maize. Fortunately, more than 200 drought-tolerant (DT) maize varieties have already been bred and released in southern African countries which have the potential to produce 30 percent of their potential yield in a drought.

On Wednesday, 21st February, Dr. Rodney Lunduka, formerly of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), presented results of a study measuring the impacts of drought tolerant maize varieties on food security in five southern African countries: Angola, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Lunduka presented results from regional on-farm variety trials and surveys which explored farmers’ maize trait preferences, adoption of DT maize, and the impact of DT variety adoption on maize production.

Lunduka highlighted that farmers consider a wide range of characteristics when choosing maize varieties – they are not simply looking for the highest yield. Important traits also include those related to agronomy, the grain, storage, processing, marketing, consumption and nutrition. While surveyed farmers overwhelmingly reported that a high yield and the ability to “escape drought” (early-maturing varieties) were among the most important traits they considered, things like resistance to pests in storage, poundability, and the quality of the nsima and taste were among other important considerations.

The study also found adoption of DT maize to be high in Malawi relative to the other countries studied, due in large part to the existence of the Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP). Dr.  Lunduka presented a number of reasons for low adoption of DT varieties. In Malawi, farmers reported high seed prices and poor seed attributes (like germination rates) as major barriers to adoption.  Another reason which sparked discussion among seminar participants was that of market availability – farmers are unlikely to buy improved varieties if they don’t have access to a market in which to sell the maize and recoup their input costs.

This has important implications for food security, as the study found that across the southern African countries examined, households saw increased maize yields and production as a result of DT maize adoption. In the study, households that grew DT maize varieties achieved yields that were 675 kilograms per hectare higher on average than those not using the DT varieties. This additional yield could be the difference between having enough food to make it through the lean, or “hungry” season, for many smallholder farm families.

Dr. Lunduka finished by highlighting approaches to reduce risks in maize production in the face of climate variability. Risks in maize production can be reduced by scaling up the production and supply of new varieties, promoting good agronomic practices alongside improved variety adoption, and combining DT varieties with weather index insurance and increasing access to good output markets. These varieties, along with good agronomic practices, have the potential to produce approximately 30% of their potential yield in the face of drought – but when extreme weather hits, crop insurance and other safety nets will likely be necessary to support maize farmers.

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