New crop varieties to address drought, malnutrition

By Angela Phiri

Chimwemwe Elifala, 29, is a farmer from Madimbo Village in Mchinji District, Malawi. For several years, he has been inspiring the farming community in Madimbo and surrounding villages to adopt new agricultural technologies that he often showcases.

“I believe in knowledge sharing and farming is one area where knowledge has power. If a farmer does not know what is happening around him, he does not benefit from his farming activities,” Elifala said.

His impact impressed staff at the Clinton Development Initiative (CDI) which is part of the Clinton Foundation.

The CDI helps African smallholder farming families meet their food needs and improve their livelihoods through a community agribusiness approach, which focuses on connecting farm communities to business opportunities in the agriculture sector. The CDI team worked with Elifala and his community group to start a test plot in Madimbo Village.

But this is no ordinary farmer’s field. It has several varieties of maize and beans that are bred with highly desirable traits aimed at making Malawian farmers’ crops more drought-tolerant and more nutritious.

Farmers visit these test plots to learn about the crops and decide which ones to grow at home.

The plot includes drought-tolerant maize varieties developed by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT); other maize varieties that are both drought-tolerant and high in vitamin A, developed by the HarvestPlus program and CIMMYT; and a high-iron bean variety developed by HarvestPlus and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

These partners are all part of the CGIAR global partnership for a food secure future.

Through thirty of these test plots established in the current growing season, CDI, HarvestPlus and CIMMYT partners are reaching 30,000 farmers in 10 districts of Malawi.

CDI chief executive officer Bill Rustrick said CDI fosters economic opportunities among farming communities in Malawi, Rwanda, and Tanzania by creating a supportive ecosystem of multi-sectoral partners to incubate these businesses.

“CDI works with partners, such as CIMMYT and HarvestPlus, to identify new varieties with higher yields that are climate resilient and have improved nutritional value, as these are most relevant and attractive to the farming communities we work with.

“Once farmers, through test plots, see the value of these varieties, we work to support the availability of, and local access to them,” he said.

Rustrick added that these varieties can play a catalytic role in improving lives for grower communities.

“Higher yields create surplus quality grains that also attract higher prices, and nutritious crops bring improved nutrition directly to the local community and the markets they sell to,” he said.

CIMMYT, in partnership with public and private partners, has been developing hundreds of new maize varieties with higher drought tolerance for countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Aparna Das, the Global Maize technical program manager at CIMMYT said: “The coming together of CIMMYT and CDI in 2019 was the beginning of an exciting partnership for deploying climate-resilient improved maize varieties in sub-Saharan Africa for the benefit of smallholder farmers.

“Ongoing farm trials in Malawi as well as Tanzania, and the expansion of these trials to Rwanda in 2021, will help build a strong platform in catalyzing the adoption of improved maize varieties and contribute to achieving the 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.”

Concerns about the impact of climate change in crop yields have highlighted the need for such crops.

Elifala and his community applaud CDI and its partners for helping the farmers understand the need to plant drought-tolerant seed varieties.

“As farmers, we need to come up with measures that will help our community realize better yields and having drought-tolerant maize varieties will make it possible,” he explains.

HarvestPlus and its partners have been developing and delivering micronutrient-rich varieties of common staple crops since 2003; more than 230 biofortified varieties of beans, maize, rice, wheat, cassava, orange sweet potato, and millet have been released so far in Africa, Asia, and Latin America/Caribbean.

These crops are a way to address micronutrient deficiency, or “hidden hunger,” that is widespread among smallholder farmers and other rural populations.

When eaten regularly, vitamin A maize can provide up to 50 per cent of daily vitamin A needs, while iron beans can provide up to 80 per cent of daily iron needs.

HarvestPlus Malawi country manager Dellings Phiri said, “Working with partners is one of the most cost-effective ways of reaching many households with biofortified crops in a short a period of time.

“Our partnership with CDI will enable us to reach more than 10,000 farming households in 10 districts with vitamin A maize and iron beans within a year.”

Mchinji district assistant agriculture development officer David Gondwe said demand for drought-tolerant and biofortified crop seeds call for increased supply to meet it.

“These demonstrations aim at encouraging farmers to buy seeds, hence the need for more seed stocks for both winter and rain-fed farming seasons,” he said.

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