Can Drought-Proof Maize Save Zimbabwe's Farmers?

Columbus Mavhunga

HARARE — Researchers are betting that a drought-proof variety of maize can help farmers in Zimbabwe withstand a changing climate that is increasingly prone to drought.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) says it is working on ensuring Zimbabwe returns to its former status as a prosperous, self-sufficient agricultural producer, after erratic rainfall in recent years affected the country’s food security.

The El Nino weather phenomenon is predicted to give Zimbabwe another drought in coming months. But CIMMYT believes its technologies can improve small farmers’ maize production, says researcher Esnath Hamadziripi.

“Here in Zimbabwe, three-in-five seasons are expected to be bad for farmers. El Nino is making that worse. So it is important to make varieties that are climate resistant because maize is the staple crop here in Zimbabwe ... in the 2015/2016 season we tested our maize varieties all over Zimbabwe and they yielded close to double the yield of commercial varieties that are on the market, so we believe that these varieties work. We actually encourage farmers to get hold of climate resistant varieties,” Hamadziripi said.

Recently, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) identified the new climate resilient maize developed by CIMMYT as one of the best innovations in agriculture.

Zimbabwe, once considered the breadbasket of southern Africa, saw farm production fall sharply in the early 2000s after a land reform program displaced experienced white commercial farmers and replaced them with black peasant farmers. Repeated droughts have helped to keep production low.

CIMMYT warns that planting climate resilient maize alone will not help Zimbabwean farmers. It says farmers should conserve the rains they receive, says Isaiah Nyagumbo, a CIMMYT agronomist.

"With conservation agriculture we are also minimizing the amount of runoff out of the system, that means reducing the amount of the water that runs into rivers, along with it a lot of soil is lost, so with conservation agriculture we help to stop that by ensuring that the soil and water remain in place,” Nyagumbo said.

Fifty-nine-year old Viola Thwamba, a farmer about 60 kilometers northeast of Harare, says conservation has helped her survive droughts in the past.

“I have heard of the pending drought, but we have faith in God. We collect dry leaves and crop stubbles. Once our crops germinate we start mulching to keep moisture in case of prolonged dry spells. Others are hit by the droughts but our conservation agriculture is helping me for 12 years now,” Thwamba said.

Thwamba wants to set up an irrigation system once her financial situation improves. But with a poor rainy season predicted, that might take a long time.