Drought tolerant maize in Mali
Finishing his meal, 67-year-old Malian farmer Bakary Touré explains that in 2011, after a particularly poor harvest, he had to sell his goats and chickens to feed his large family. He was on the point of abandoning his homestead when a fellow farmer suggested he purchase a drought tolerant variety of maize called Brico. The US$15 purchase grew into a 1.6 ton harvest that is enough to feed his 22-member family for six months. "Maize saved me," he adds.
Moving towards maize
Other equally successful stories about the performance of drought tolerant maize in Mali - where droughts persistently wilt harvests - have boosted demand for maize seed. "Mali is one of the countries in West Africa where maize production has expanded into areas where drought stress occurs intermittently," says Abebe Menkir, maize breeder with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), who works with Mali's Institute of Rural Economy (IER) to develop drought tolerant varieties and make them available to farmers. "With drought tolerant varieties, Mali has the opportunity to expand maize production where it was not possible before because of droughts."
Brico is just one variety that has been developed by the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) project that is implemented by IITA and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). "We worked with farmers to select the best seeds, those that adapt the best to areas where drought is endemic," says N'Tji Coulibaly, an IER agronomist and head of its maize research programme. "From 2009, two early-maturing, open pollinated varieties were released that farmers have dubbed Brico, the name of a town in Mali, and Jorobana, which means 'no worries' in the Bambara language. In areas where drought can reduce production by 70 per cent, drought tolerant maize is a godsend. Ideally, we should introduce one or two new drought tolerant varieties each year."
One challenge that needs to be addressed is a lack of high quality seed. "When a drought is looming, all of the farmers want drought tolerant seed at the same time," Coulibaly explains. IER is helping to fill this gap in supply by teaching farmers how to produce certified seed, which among other things requires farmers to follow a schedule for applying fertiliser and weeding, and maintain the correct separation between maize plots to avoid cross pollination. "With traditional maize varieties, I was producing approximately 300 kg per year," explains Benkeba Traoré. "Last year, with Brico, I produced two tons of maize and I sold 800 kg as seeds."
Involvement of the private sector has been a key feature of the DTMA project. Faso Kaba - maize of the country - Seeds, was established in 2005 by Maimouna Coulibaly, having accompanied her agronomist husband to Iowa in the US and seen at first hand the output from improved varieties. Over a two year period, and with technical and financial support from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Maimouna built a promotional campaign, organised training of farmers in seed production, and developed a distribution network for improved varieties of six popular crops, including drought tolerant maize. In 2008, the company produced 100 tons of seed, grown under contract by farmers. By 2012, this had risen tenfold, with the company employing 11 people, running its own seed cleaning and packaging unit, and coordinating around 150 franchised stores.
Lassana Diakite, chair of a local farming cooperative, now in his fifth year of growing drought tolerant maize for seed, describes the process. "From plowing to sowing and harvesting, each step is recorded. I know when I'm weeding, when I have to spread fertilizer, when I have to harvest ... I even know my yields in advance." In the first year, he used 1.5 of his 12 hectares for Jorobana seed production, producing 1.7 tons. Three years later, production had climbed to 4.6 tons. "Drought tolerant maize beats conventional maize as the horse beats the donkey," he says, to the amusement of his farming colleagues.
In Bamako, Coulibaly and his team have just completed tests on hybrid varieties which are more productive than Brico and Jorobana. One of these new varieties, dubbed Tcheba - 'big' in Bambara - should be available to farmers for planting in 2013. At Faso Kaba Seeds, Maimouna Coulibaly is also excited about the potential from drought tolerant hybrids. Currently her packs of drought tolerant maize seeds sell at around US$1.50 per kilo; "With hybrid seeds, prices could climb up to CFA 2600 (US$5) per kilo. People are willing to pay, given the higher yields," she adds.
Generous support for the research and development of this story was provided by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and MAIZE, CGIAR Research Program on Maize
Written by: Vincent Defait
Date published: February 2013
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