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WEMA puts World Water Week goals into practice

by Joan Conrow

As global leaders focus on sustainability during the annual World Water Week convention in Stockholm, researchers are finding ways to make farming less risky in drought-prone sub-Saharan Africa.

Foremost among their initiatives is the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project. It's focusing on maize because some 300 million Africans depend on the crop as their main food source. Yet maize production is frequently harmed by drought, leading to hunger, poverty and human suffering.

Some farmers in South Africa say they plant corn in December, only to see it die in January as climate change disrupts rainfall and extends dry periods. As a result, people go hungry or depend on food aid.

“It's important that we develop drought-resistant varieties to ensure food security” says Dr. Kingstone Mashingaidze, a scientist with the Agricultural Research Council of South Africa.

That's where WEMA comes in. As a public-private partnership coordinated by the African Agricultural Technologies Foundation, it's working to develop drought-tolerant and insect-resistant maize using conventional and marker-assisted breeding methods, as well as biotechnology. The goal is to produce seeds that can be distributed royalty-free to smallholder farmers throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

“Global warming has had a disastrous effect on us,” said South African farmer Morapedi Molema. “As farmers we do everything within our power to plant and grow our crops correctly, and yet we're unable to get the results we used to get in the past.”

Molema participated in 2014-15 field trials to asses the yield of the WEMA varieties and their ability to withstand local climatic conditions. “The WEMA seed, it has done well throughout this drought that we have and it has been outstanding as it produced more than the other lands that I planted maize on,” he said.

“The WEMA maize is very good, agreed Makhauta Mguni, a mother of three who raises maize, beans and cattle in South Africa. “When it comes up against drought it comes out on top. If I compare it to the other maize I planted, the WEMA seed is much better.”

Government agencies in the participating countries of Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda will follow their own regulatory processes in assessing the safety and efficacy of the seeds, which will be distributed by local companies. Some WEMA seeds are already being marketed under the tradename Drought Tego.

Local agricultural extension agents are now encouraging farmers to form cooperatives and grow WEMA maize, selling their surplus to mills as a way to alleviate poverty.

As the Stockholm conference participants continue to discuss topics related to the theme of “water for sustainable growth,” some African farmers are already moving toward that goal, thanks to WEMA seeds and a good education on best management practices.

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