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Moving uphill: Maize’s growing role in Ethiopia

CIMMYT E-News, vol 6 no. 1, January 2009


Fueled by high-yielding varieties and national initiatives to promote the crop in highland areas, maize’s popularity is mounting rapidly in Ethiopia. Because farmers can get more food and income with the new varieties, they are calling out for seed. Suppliers—both private and government supported—are clamoring to meet the demand

“Farmers have expressed strong feelings for maize,” says a translator. A group of villagers at Sororo, Ejere District, Oromia, stand in the intense, mid-morning glare of highland Ethiopia and speak to visitors about their experiences with the improved maize varieties they had received from Demissew Abakemal, maize breeder with the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR). “It was a very dry year, and your maize is performing well,” the farmers say. “We have a surplus for food and even some for taking to the market—something we’d not seen in all our lives.” They have been harvesting and piling sheaves of wheat from the bottom of the hill, but take the visitors to maize fields up near their dwellings, and proudly show the large ears of the hybrid Arganne and a nearly-as-productive open-pollinated variety (OPV), Hora.

Those varieties, and practices like using fertilizer, are part of an EIAR and CIMMYT partnership in a project to improve the incomes and food security of highland households, with technical and other support from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. Demissew Abakemal works out of an EIAR research station at the highland location of Ambo, but has roamed the highlands far and wide to help farmers. “We began in 2006 trying to get more farmers to adopt practices—use of improved seed and fertilizer—that had previously been used in isolated pockets in the highlands,” he says. “The work is going on in six districts, and we’ve gotten through to thousands of farmers around Ambo alone.”

Sororo farmer Alemayehu Balcha had harvested enough in 2008 to take green ears by donkey to a market 5 kilometers away. “With the money we earned, we bought things like coffee, salt, kerosene—household items—and even some school materials for our children.” Alemayehu has three children whom he supports by farming a mere half-hectare of land and share-cropping on other farmers’ holdings, growing rye, wheat, maize, and diverse garden crops, with help from his wife and occasionally other relatives. He admits that it takes hard work to make ends meet. “I’ve been head of the household for seven years, and even though it’s not enough, I’m standing on my own,” he says. Later Demissew learns that Alemayehu and his wife also help support a recently-widowed neighbor and her six children.

High density, intensive land use

Roughly twice the size of France, Ethiopia has a population of 80 million ethnically and linguistically diverse inhabitants. Many Ethiopians live in highland areas where good rainfall makes cropping possible. Even though only 1/10th of its land is arable, agriculture accounts for almost half of the gross domestic product, 60% of exports, and 80% of total employment in Ethiopia. Farmers typically subdivide their land to leave each child a parcel, so over generations the average holding has shrunk to less than one hectare per household. Soil degradation, erosion, and deforestation are big problems.

Coffee is the chief cash crop, but for food farmers grow teff—a robust ancient cereal used to make the favorite sourdough flatbread, injera—as well as wheat, sorghum, and the increasingly popular maize. “Maize is the hunger-breaking crop for the highlands,” says Strafford Twumasi-Afriyie, CIMMYT maize breeder based in Ethiopia. “The small-grain crops must be processed and cooked. Maize can be eaten with very simple preparation, and is simpler to grow and more productive than teff.” Farmers in remote areas also use the maize plant for fodder, for building fences, and as fuel for cooking fires.

The uphill climb for maize in Africa

The varieties used in the EIAR project derive from work begun by Twumasi around 1997, with help from partners from six Eastern African countries including Demissew Abakemal and other EIAR breeders, to address the pressing need for high-yielding maize for the tropical highlands of sub-Saharan Africa. “The materials from CIMMYT’s highland breeding program in Mexico are not well-adapted to Africa,” he says, “so I began using midaltitude germplasm from CIMMYT-Zimbabwe’s work, plus transition zone (between midaltitude and highland) varieties from the center’s breeding efforts in Mexico.” Twumasi also chose highland sites of partners in Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda for use by him and national partners to cross, test, and select new varieties. Over the years, his efforts have been generously supported by BMZ-Germany, Sasakawa-Global 2000, CIDA-Canada, and not least, EIAR.

“By 2006, we had a good array of experimental varieties for the region, including inbred lines for making hybrids.” At harvest time that same year, Twumasi and colleagues showcased the materials to the region’s stakeholders, including seed companies. “Since then, there’s been lots of demand,” he says. “Ethiopia’s national program has released two hybrids and one OPV, and will release another hybrid soon. Rwanda also released an OPV in 2008. Now our focus is to get small seed companies to develop and release hybrids from the source germplasm developed in the project.”

More recently, Twumasi and partners have also been working to create quality protein maize (QPM) versions of Ethiopia’s most popular varieties. QPM looks and grows like normal maize, but its grain provides protein with higher lysine and tryptophan content, two essential amino-acids for humans and farm animals like poultry and swine. The heights and weights of preschool children whose diets included QPM as their main starchy staple increased more than 20% faster than those of children who ate conventional maize, according to a recent study [More nutritious maize boosts growth of children in rural Ethiopia] in rural Ethiopia on the nutritional benefits of QPM and its acceptance as a food.

Ethiopian highland farmer Asefa Tulu (standing, white tunic) is one of many who would dearly like to continue growing improved varieties of maize, if only companies and other sources can begin to offer farmers a steady supply of affordable, quality seed. Here he stands between CIMMYT maize breeder, Strafford Twumasi Afriye (standing, left), and Demissew Abakemal, maize breeder with EIAR (standing, right).
The need for seed

Farmer Asefa Tulu had little patience with his peers at a recent meeting in their village of UrĂşti, about 14 kilometers southwest of the Ambo research station and at 2,300 meters above sea level. After listening to them complain repeatedly about pests constraining their maize yields, he finally burst out with “No, no—what matters is how you manage your crop!”

Asefa Tulu is a progressive farmer with a larger-than-average six hectares of croplands. Using careful management and the new EIAR maize varieties, he has been getting yields upwards of nine tons per hectare, and could not be happier. “We heard about the new varieties on the news and from our children, but people said this new maize was too short and would get eaten by the wild dogs. I dared to sow it [the hybrid Arganne] anyway, following all the recommendations, and got a very good crop plant and confirmed that it was not attacked by animals.”

Demissew has brought Asefa Tulu seed of a new release, Wenchi (named after a nearby lake) that is showing even better productivity. “We are very impressed with Wenchi,” says Asefa Tulu. “Truly speaking, this can take us out of poverty. It’s a variety for us, in terms of adaptation and yield.”

Other farmers are visiting his plots and requesting seed from him, but he knows they will get lower yields, if they re-sow seed saved from the harvest of a hybrid. “We need the new seed to come to us in bulk,” he says.

With the promise of the new, high-yielding varieties, farmers throughout the highlands are demanding seed, and supplies in recent years have fallen short. The main seed producer has been the government’s Ethiopia Seed Enterprise. “The government has been encouraging private companies to move into the market with maize hybrids, and providing them with the breeder’s and foundation seed to do so,” says Dennis Friesen, CIMMYT agronomist based in Ethiopia. “The plan is for the Ethiopia Seed Enterprise eventually to leave hybrid seed production to private companies, and focus on producing seed of OPVs for farmers who can’t afford the hybrids. But right now this is all in a transition phase.”

Ethiopian maize scientists discussed the issue at a meeting in Addis Ababa in November 2008, according to Friesen, who helped coordinate the event. Meanwhile, the need for seed is definitely on the radar screen of the country’s policymakers, who are promoting maize production to help alleviate poverty and hunger.

Despite strong growth in the private seed sector in eastern and southern Africa over the last decade, most of region’s millions of small-scale farmers lack easy access to affordable, quality seed of maize. A major study by CIMMYT (see p.4 of CIMMYT’s 2007-08 annual report, Science for Farmers and a Better Food Future) shows the need for active investments in the region’s seed sector and for policies to support its development.

For more information: Dennis Friesen, agronomist (d.friesen@cgiar.org), or Strafford Twumasi Afriye, maize breeder (s.twumasi@cgiar.org)