New varieties of drought-tolerant maize could deliver a US$1.5 billion gain in food and income in Sub-Saharan Africa as well as helping smallholders cope with the effects of climate change, according to a study carried out in 13 countries in the region.
Researchers at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Mexico, and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Nigeria, said the varieties produce yields up to 50 per cent higher than commercial varieties, and also store well.
They developed the maize under the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa initiative (DTMA) with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.
Other studies have already warned that by 2050, growing conditions in most African countries will be hotter than any year on record, making most varieties of maize under cultivation unviable, and that a failure to switch to drought-tolerant maize could reduce yields across the region by up to one tonne per hectare.
Under 'conservative yield' improvements, the DTMA researchers found that the new varieties would provide farmers and consumers with food and income worth US$537 million, increasing to US$876 million under 'optimistic yield improvements' over the study period of ten years. If drought-tolerant maize completely replaced existing varieties in the countries studied there would be a US$1.5 billion benefit.
Wilfred Mwangi, DTMA project leader and associate director of CIMMYT's global maize programme, told SciDev.Net that the new varieties, which are not genetically modified, were developed to help farmers cope with climate change as they are more resilient under severe drought than other varieties.
He said that four varieties have been released in Ghana this year — which, as well as being drought-tolerant, are more nutritious than conventional varieties — and two in Malawi last year.
Joseph Jojo Baidu-Forson, a scientist at Bioversity International's Sub-Saharan Africa office in Kenya, told SciDev.Net that the varieties were an important development for food security.
'But the development of the drought tolerant maize does not in any way take away the focus on other crops, particularly indigenous and neglected food plants, such as leafy vegetables, which are needed to complement nutrients from maize,' he said.
Peter Hartmann, director-general of the IITA, said: 'The goal now is to make drought-tolerant maize easily available to millions of smallholder growers in countries where droughts, which always lurk as a perennial threat to food production, are expected to become more common and more severe.'
Maize is a staple crop for more than 300 million people in Africa.