For small-scale farmers in Africa
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 farmers.
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
‘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 frequent drought.
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 tolerance.
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
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,
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 for stakeholders.
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 sell.
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.