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Africa African agritech agency
to develop drought-tolerant maize varieties 23-June-2008 Manila Bulletin
For small-scale farmers in
KAMPALA — The African Agricultural Technology Foundation
(AATF) today announced a public-private partnership to develop
drought-tolerant maize varieties for Africa.
The partnership, known as Water Efficient Maize for Africa
(WEMA), was formed in response to a growing call by African
farmers, leaders, and scientists to address the devastating
effects of drought on small-scale farmers and their families.
Frequent drought leads to crop failure, hunger, and poverty.
Climate change will only worsen the problem. AATF announced
the effort at the end of a two-day planning meeting that
included representatives from each of the countries participating
in the project: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and South Africa.
The partners will use marker-assisted breeding and biotechnology
to develop African maize varieties with the long-term goal
of making drought-tolerant maize available royalty-free
to African small-scale farmers. The benefits and safety
of these maize varieties will be assessed by national authorities
according to the regulatory requirements in each country.
‘This partnership fits well with the AATF mandate of facilitating
innovative public-private partnerships that bring to smallholder
farmers in Africa the tools needed to increase productivity
for better food and income security,’ said Mpoko Bokanga,
executive director AATF.
AATF will work with the non-profit International Maize
and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT); the private agricultural
company, Monsanto; and the national agricultural research
systems in the participating countries.
The new drought-tolerance technologies have already been
licensed without charge to AATF so they can be developed,
tested, and eventually distributed to African seed companies
through AATF without royalty and made available to smallholder
Bokanga added that the project will involve local institutions,
both public and private, and in the process expand their
capacity and experience in crop breeding, biotechnology,
and biosafety. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and
the Howard G. Buffett Foundation contributed a total of
million to this effort.
The Director General of the National Agricultural Research
Organization of Uganda, Dr. Dennis Kyetere, presided over
the official announcement of the initiative and said that
the project will help address drought and contribute to
food security in Africa.
‘Drought is a source of suffering and food insecurity for
many people in Uganda and it is recognized as a challenge
by the government. Drought causes up to 100 percent crop
failure in Uganda in some instances’, said Dr. Kyetere.
Africa is a drought-prone continent, making farming risky
for millions of small-scale farmers who rely on rainfall
to water their crops. Maize is the most widely grown staple
crop in Africa: more than 300 million Africans depend on
it as their main food source. It is severely affected by
In the next five years, the partnership will develop the
new maize varieties, incorporating the best drought-tolerance
technologies available internationally. CIMMYT will provide
3 of 4 conventionally developed drought tolerant high-yielding
maize varieties that are adapted to African conditions and
expertise in conventional breeding and testing for drought
Monsanto will provide proprietary germplasm, advanced breeding
tools and expertise. Additionally, Monsanto and BASF will
provide drought-tolerance transgenes that they have developed
through their collaboration. These contributions will be
provided without royalty.
The national agricultural research systems, farmers’ groups,
and seed companies participating in the project will contribute
their expertise in breeding and regulatory issues and will
be responsible for country-specific implementation including
project governance, testing, germplasm evaluation, seed
production, and distribution.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has funded an independent
program at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health
(University of Toronto) to assess and monitor social, cultural,
ethical and commercial issues related to the WEMA Project.
The independent organization will conduct annual audits
of WEMA and serve as an additional communication channel
According to eminent scientist Professor Calestous Juma,
who is the Director of the Science, Technology and Globalization
Project at Harvard University, the WEMA project is a powerful
signal of the relevance of biotechnology to African agriculture.
The collaboration between CIMMYT and national agricultural
research systems has already yielded excellent gains in
drought tolerance through conventional breeding. The partners
in the WEMA project expect the combination of advanced breeding
and biotechnology to bring even greater gains. The partners
estimate that the maize products developed over the next
10 years could increase yields by 20 to 35 percent under
moderate drought, compared to current varieties. This increase
would translate into about two million additional tons of
food during drought years in the participating countries,
meaning 14 to 21 million people would have more to eat and
The first conventional varieties developed by WEMA could
be available after six to seven years of research and development.
The transgenic droughttolerant maize hybrids will be available
in about ten years.
Risk of crop failure from drought is one of the primary
reasons why small-scale farmers in Africa do not adopt improved
farming practices. A more reliable harvest could give farmers
the confidence to improve their techniques. Good soil health,
improved training and support, pest and disease management,
and access to markets to sell their surplus are all necessary
for small-scale farmers to boost their yields and incomes.
To date, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested
more than 0 million as part of a broad agricultural development
strategy that includes efforts in all of these areas so
small-scale farmers could have access to the tools and opportunities
they need to build better lives.
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