Concepta Apako breathes heavily as she hoes away on her 1-acre garden in Abuket, a remote village in eastern Uganda. She’s been at it since dawn and clouds are gathering in the morning sky, potentially threatening her plans to plant an indigenous variety of corn to feed her husband and 10 children.
Concepta, like many Ugandan farmers, is grappling with a severe threat to her maize crop by the destructive fall armyworm (FAW). She’s abandoned commercial hybrids this season in hopes the indigenous variety might offer better protection from FAW, an invasive pest that hit the country by storm in early 2017, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake.
The voracious caterpillar has decimated entire fields of maize — data from the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (CABI) shows an estimated 13.5 million tons of maize valued at $3 billion to be at risk in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) in 2017-18. In Uganda alone, annual losses are estimated at close to US$193 million. Such statistics highlight the extent of the worm’s crop wreckage, leaving the livelihoods of 3.6 million households in the balance.
Maize is the most important food staple and source of livelihood in the region, with over 300 million people in SSA dependent on the crop. Many of them are women. More than 60 percent of the employed women in SSA work in agriculture, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
This figure, however, masks considerable disparities within countries across the region and understates the role played by women in African agriculture. In Uganda, women make up more than half of the country’s agricultural workforce, with a higher proportion of women (76 percent) working in farming than men (62 percent).
Concepta, already a victim of the fall armyworm’s devastation in 2017, is hopeful that this year will bring better fortune to her land. In the midst of these uncertain times, farmers have new reason for hope. The latest results from field trials of genetically modified (GM) drought-tolerant and insect-resistant maize are promising. Ugandan scientists say the seeds should be ready for commercialization within two years if the regulatory climate improves.
Speaking at a recent event, Dr. Godfrey Asea, director of the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI), expressed optimism that farmers will soon be allowed to use GM crops, which are currently undergoing field trials in Uganda. “Once the (biosafety) law is ready we have a promising product to move to the next episode of deregulation and deployment,” Asea said while leading a tour of a Bt (pest-resistant) maize field trial for journalists attending a two-day training workshop on agricultural biotechnology.
The Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) growing in NaCRRI’s field trial was initially bred to resist damage caused by the stem borer and tolerate drought. But it’s also demonstrated more resilience against FAW than the available commercial hybrid varieties.
However, efforts to get products of modern agricultural technologies, such as GM crops, into the hands of farmers have so far been stymied by the absence of an enabling national policy. Uganda’s National Biosafety Act, passed by Parliament in October 2017, was referred back to lawmakers by President Museveni, who cited concerns that he felt needed to be addressed.
Such political deadlocks only serve to accentuate the quandaries faced by small-holder famers, the majority of whom are women, in developing the country’s agriculture. By blocking or limiting access to innovative agricultural technologies, not only is the government of Uganda stifling agricultural progress but also going against contemporary efforts aimed at gender equality, inclusion and social justice.
Female farmers like Concepta cannot achieve gender parity on their own. Uganda and other sub-Saharan African governments need to reaffirm their commitment to empower the female face of agriculture. Facilitating equitable access to agricultural technologies is a key component of the growing global momentum toward gender equality and its associated benefits. For small-holder farmers like Concepta, this access also could mean the difference between food security and hunger.
Joshua Raymond Muhumuza is a research assistant with Uganda Biosciences Information Center.