In times of drought, parched lands yield few, if any, crops, increasing hunger among communities. As one way of boosting food security during these difficult times, scientists in Kenya and across Africa are coming up with maize varieties that are able to produce corn with a minimal water supply.
Tucked away in the corner of farmer Philip Ngolania Makau’s living room sits a floor-to-ceiling silo filled with corn. He grabs a basin, opens the tap, and out pours a steady stream of kernels ready to be boiled for the evening meal.
What’s unusual about this scene is that, while his neighbors are struggling to put food on the table, Makau’s family has plenty of corn to spare. This is during a drought near the town of Machakos in eastern Kenya where Makau has his three-quarter-acre farm.
The secret of his success? KDV4.
Makau is in town, now, at the retail shop of the Dryland Seed Company. He is purchasing several bags of KDV4, one of more than 20 corn varieties in Kenya that are drought-tolerant. This is Makau’s second season of planting this variety of corn. He calls his first season a “miracle.”
“In that three-quarter acre [farm], I was getting less than a bag [of corn]," said Makau. "But now, after we got the Dry[land] Seed Company seeds, there has been great change. I am getting five bags in that small area.”
Dryland Seed Company
At the Dryland Seed Company’s warehouse on the edge of town, co-director Edna Ngila is counting sacks of KDV4 seeds and two other varieties of drought-tolerant corn. Over the past year, the company has produced 100 tons of drought-tolerant seeds to sell to farmers.
“They appreciate our seed. They are saying they are not losing a season anymore. Before, they were losing a season," said Ngila. "We only have two seasons in a year to grow our food. If you missed last season, for example, it means you don’t have food until the next season - that will take them about eight or nine months to grow another food.”
The company contracts out about 100 farmers to help the company expand its seed supply. Ngila explains.
“Our aim is to help the farmers eradicate poverty, be part of our business," said Ngila. "So we give them seed to grow for us so we buy from them.”
Ngila and her company works closely with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, or KARI. Dryland Seed Company and its customers such as farmer Makau are the end users of corn that has been developed over many years in research stations across the country.
Under various conditions, researchers creating drought-tolerant corn examine specific traits of the plant such as the depth of the root system, pollination process, and the rolling of leaves.
“We plant all the different types of varieties - sometimes going up to hundreds - into a field like this," said Dr. James Gethi, the national coordinator of KARI’s maize program. "After reaching a stage just before they flower, you withdraw the water. Once you withdraw the water, the plants grow, simulating an environment where the rain has stopped. At the end of the season, you check at all the different varieties that you have, and check the ones that have done the best.”
He says plants are then tested under natural drought conditions. From there, a “breeder seed” is developed and regulated by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service. The breeder seed is passed on to partners such as Dryland Seed Company, who then develops certified seed that can be sold or distributed to farmers.
Throughout the process, researchers work closely with farmers to create the ideal crop.
Lloyd Le Page, the chief executive officer of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research Consortium, a global network of scientists and researchers that works with groups such as KARI, explains that farmers are looking for a range of characteristics in the plant that go beyond the ability to withstand dryness and heat.
“Maize is such an important staple crop, particularly in East Africa and Southern Africa, that taste is a large factor for them," said Le Page. "It’s no good producing a drought-tolerant crop if it doesn’t taste in the way that they’re looking for.”
The development of drought-tolerant corn is seen as a viable solution to the problem of reduced yields during drought, resulting in food insecurity and famine in severe cases.
A study released last year by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre predicts that widespread adaption of drought-tolerant varieties of maize could boost harvests in 13 African countries by 10 to 34 percent and generate up to $1.5 billion in benefits for producers and consumers.