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Drought-resistant maize gives African farmers new hope

Drought resistant maize could help millions in southern Africa.

With large swathes of Southern Africa gripped by drought, farmers are hoping that a new variety of drought-resistant maize will put an end to failed crops.

With aid agencies warning that ten to 15 million people are on the brink of starvation the need is greater than ever.

The new breed of maize, which is not genetically modified, yields between 30-50 per cent more than normal maize in drought conditions.

Swiss support

The ongoing project to find more and more varieties of drought-tolerant maize is run by the South Africa Drought and Low Soil Fertility Project (SADLF), which the Swiss Development Agency (SDC) has supported for many years.

One of the project co-ordinators on the ground is Marianne Bänziger, who has worked with the SADLF for over six years.

“We select varieties of maize which are better adapted to drought and low soil fertility,” she explains.

“It’s a rather conventional selection technique,” Bänziger told swissinfo, adding that unlike other maize breeders, who select varieties based on tests in good conditions with fertilizer and irrigation, SADLF selects varieties based on yields in resource-poor environments.

“We take into account the stresses crops will be under on smallholder farms and in our development stations we select maize varieties which can stand up to those stresses,” she explains.

The fact that the maize is selected “naturally” is very important as many African states do not want GM crops, but still need better yields. For example even though many people are starving in Zambia, the government has refused GM food aid.

Thousands of varieties

Over the years Bänziger has tested thousands of different types of maize weeding out the best varieties for farmers in countries like Angola, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Mozambique.

“We even had farmers in Nepal who tried out one of our varieties and found it was suited to their conditions,” she says.

Bottom-up approach

One of the reasons why the SADLF project stands apart is that it gives smallholder farmers seeds to test and then asks them how the crop performed. Based on this information it then decides whether to distribute the seeds.

With current stocks of maize seeds Bänziger says 30,000 new hectares of land could be planted, but she points out that many farmers have been using her carefully selected seeds since distribution began in 2000.

“When farmers see that something is better, they want to pass it onto their friends and neighbours and so on,” she enthuses. “We know it is spreading from farmer to farmer, but it is hard to assess how many families and how much of the area has benefited from it.”

swissinfo, Sally Mules and Samantha Tonkin

Ten to 15 million people are on the brink of starvation.

The new maize is not genetically modified.

It yields between 30-50 per cent more than normal maize in drought conditions.

Many African countries do not want GM crops.

Thousands of different types of maize have been tested.

Smallholders are given seeds to test.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR