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Focus on water efficient maize for Africa

November 2012


Africa is a drought-prone continent, making farming risky for millions of smallholder farmers who rely on rainfall for crop production. Drought leads to crop failure, hunger and poverty and climate change will only worsen the problem.

Maize is the most widely grown staple food crop in sub-Saharan Africa. The high sensitivity of maize to drought stress discourages smallholder farmers growing maize under rainfed conditions, from risking investment in best management practices, including quality hybrid seed and fertiliser.

As a result, average maize yields obtained by smallholder farmers are about one ton per hectare. In sub-Saharan Africa, approximately 20 million metric tonnes of potential maize production are lost each year due to drought. Because over 90% of sub-Saharan Africa’s cropland is rainfed and is likely to remain so, identifying ways to mitigate drought risk, stabilise yields and encourage investment in best management practices, is fundamental to realising food security and improved livelihoods for the continent.

Like drought, insects present a challenge for smallholder maize farmers in Africa who have little to no resources to effectively manage them. During drought, maize is particularly susceptible to pests and farmers can experience complete losses.

South Africa produces surplus maize every year, but approximately 14 million people are food insecure. This highlights the need to improve food self-sufficiency at the household level.

Developing drought tolerant and insect protected maize

The Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project is a public-private partnership aimed at enhancing food security and improving rural livelihoods among smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa through development and deployment of drought tolerant and insect protected maize varieties (hybrids) to smallholder farmers.

The hybrids are being developed using a range of approaches including conventional plant breeding, an advanced breeding technique called marker assisted breeding, and transgenic approaches which are sometimes referred to as genetic modification.

Drought tolerance is a complex trait that is difficult to select for under field conditions. It involves a complex network of metabolic and physiological pathways that are influenced by the genotype as well as the environment.

The desired “end phenotype” is higher yield under limited water conditions, but this effect can be due to a combination of many factors, such as a more efficient mechanism for water uptake from the soil, a higher rate of photosynthesis per volume of water, a slower transpiration rate, etc; none of which can easily be selected for under field conditions, except as improved yield.

Combining conventional breeding, molecular breeding and transgenic techniques has the potential to impact multiple water stress pathways and maximise the drought tolerance phenotype through additive or even synergistic improvements.

A partnership

The public-private partnership, known as WEMA, was formed in 2008 in response to a growing call by African farmers, leaders, and scientists to address the devastating effects of drought. As research progressed, it became clear that insects were having a negative impact on yield and that adding insect protection would complement the efforts to develop drought tolerant maize varieties for smallholder farmers in Africa.

This partnership is co-ordinated by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation and they are working with the national agricultural research systems in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda; the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, an internationally funded, non-profit, scientific research, training and development organisation; and Monsanto, a private agricultural company. In South Africa, the project is co-ordinated by the Agricultural Research Council (ARC). Each of the WEMA partners contribute their technology, time, and expertise to the project.

The African Agricultural Technology Foundation leads the partnership, drawing on its unique experience in public-private partnership management, technology stewardship and project management.

National agricultural research systems, farmers groups and seed companies participating in the project, contribute their expertise in breeding, field testing, seed multiplication and distribution.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre provide highyielding maize varieties that are adapted to African conditions and expertise in conventional breeding and testing for drought tolerance.

Monsanto is contributing maize varieties from its global proprietary collection, drought-tolerant and insect protection genes, and its expertise in agricultural research and product deployment.

Participation in the project by farmers groups and governments helps strengthen African capacities in crop breeding and biosafety. The project is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

Vision for success

WEMA products will be drought tolerant white single-cross and threeway conventional and transgenic hybrids that give at least 20% yield advantage under moderate drought conditions compared to 2008 check hybrids.

This yield benefit will be further protected by the inclusion of Monsanto’s Bt transgenic event to confer resistance to stem borers thereby enhancing yield stability. This will increase and stabilise maize production and food self-sufficiency at household level.

Considerable progress has been registered in the product development effort. Experimental hybrids developed using conventional breeding and doubled haploid maize inbred lines are being evaluated in the Regional Maize Testing Network of East and Southern Africa in all the partner countries.

Preliminary results indicated some promising hybrids that are consistently superior to the commonly grown best check hybrids across locations. The first drought tolerant conventional hybrids are expected to be released in 2014. Modest yield gains could mean an additional two million tonnes of maize during drought years that could feed 14 to 21 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.

WEMA GM varieties

The WEMA project aims to develop and deploy drought tolerant locally adapted maize varieties using both conventional breeding and genetic modification (GM) technologies. Because GM crops are more strictly regulated than conventional crops, these varieties will, in addition to the general agronomical evaluations, also have to pass: (i) a food and feed safety assessment; (ii) an environmental risk assessment; and (iii) a socio-economic sustainability assessment as dictated by the individual national regulatory frameworks for genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In South Africa, GM WEMA varieties will be required to comply with the regulations of the GMO Act (Act 15 of 1997), which was specifically developed to provide measures to promote the responsible development and use of GMOs. Food and feed safety assessments and environmental risk assessments for WEMA varieties will be similar to those done for insect resistant and herbicide tolerant maize varieties which have been commercially available since the mid-1990s.

Confined testing of transgenic drought tolerant maize hybrids, is currently ongoing in Kenya, South Africa and Uganda. Preliminary data suggested that the drought tolerant trait has the potential to significantly increase yields under drought. In addition, the gene does not reduce yield under favourable moisture conditions. Commercial release of transgenic WEMA maize hybrids is expected to start in 2017, subject to regulatory approvals.

Benefits for smallholder farmers

The WEMA project will in particular benefit smallholder farmers, most of whom are women, and their associated rural communities as their crop farming is done almost exclusively under rainfed conditions and often in arid regions.

WEMA maize varieties are expected to stabilise yields under moderate drought conditions, allowing smallholder farmers not only to secure harvests which would satisfy their own household requirements, but also to produce surplus maize which can be sold to generate an income. A more reliable harvest could also give farmers additional confidence to invest in their farms and improve their farming practices.

Insect protection will help produce more reliable harvests and better grain quality due to reduced insect damage and mycotoxins. Insect protection will also reduce the need for pesticide use, which will bring benefits to both the environment and human health.

Deployment and accessibility
All WEMA varieties will be made available royalty-free to smallholder farmers through local seed companies in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa.

Already established, local seed distribution networks will be used to distribute the new drought tolerant varieties. These organisations will also be responsible for technology support services to smallholder farmers with respect to the efficient and effective use of the WEMA maize varieties. Insect protection will also be available royalty-free in all WEMA countries besides South Africa, where farmers already have access to this technology.

The drought tolerant and insect protection technologies will be provided to smallholder farmers at no additional cost. Moreover, smallholder farmers purchasing either the conventionally bred or GM WEMA maize varieties, will not pay an additional technology fee or have to enter into a technology use agreement with the technology developer.

Through the WEMA project, smallholder farmers will therefore get access to modern, high yielding maize varieties royalty-free. That means that farmers will not have to pay any additional fees for using these improved seeds and should be able to purchase WEMA varieties at more or less the same price as non-WEMA maize varieties.

This is expected to have a significant positive impact on the food security, financial security and livelihoods of smallholder farmers and their families.


The decision on whether to use or not to use the WEMA maize varieties and which specific variety, e.g. GM or non-GM, will always be that of the individual farmer. This effort is only part of what is needed to help these farmers boost their yields and incomes.

Farmers also require good soil health, improved training and support, pest and disease management, and access to markets to sell their surplus.

For more information, contact Kingstone Mashingaidze at MashingaidzeK@arc.agric.za.

Publication: November 2012

Section: Input Overview