March 27, 2019 | By Mark Edge

Guest Commentary - How a Humble Seed Is Helping African Farmers to Better Manage Both Food and Water

Editor's Note: As part of our new blog series, Uncharted Waters, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is inviting a diverse group of experts to explore topics related to water, nutrition, and agriculture in celebration of the 2019 Global Food Security Symposium.  Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and explore the report interactive now.

By  Mark Edge, Director of Collaborations for Developing Countries

DroughtTEGO hybrid seeds. (Photo credit: Bayer)

As our global population continues to grow and the climate becomes hotter and drier and resources become scarcer, a simple reality has evolved into a societal conundrum: we need both food and fresh water to survive, but growing food demands significant fresh water as well. Our efforts to ensure both food security and ample fresh water supplies are intertwined, and ultimately, efficiency is the only solution.

Worldwide, it is estimated that agriculture accounts for 70 percent of fresh water consumption. While growing crops and maintaining livestock will always be water-intensive, efficient use of water will be key to managing our growing needs for both food and water. In developed countries, great strides are being made on two fronts: more effective irrigation techniques and development and usage of seeds that are more drought-tolerant and require less water.

However, the push-pull between food and water needs is felt most strongly today in developing countries like those in sub-Saharan Africa, where the majority of food to support the African people is produced by smallholder farmers who lack modern tools or irrigation infrastructure. In these regions, food security is dictated by each harvest, and fresh water is a precious resource that must be managed on a daily basis.

Most African smallholder farmers depend on manual labor and handmade tools. They often only have access to older seed varieties that don’t provide the benefits of modern breeding and biotechnology advances. Irrigation, when possible, is often handled with a bucket. Their communities lack services and transportation infrastructure, adding challenges for planting, crop management and harvest.

For most smallholder farmers, the stakes couldn’t be higher. A successful season means the difference between ample food and a bit more income, or hunger and poverty in the season ahead. And these farmers are largely at the mercy of the elements, with scant resources to deal with drought or crop infestations.

Kenyan farmers in a field planted with DroughtTEGO hybrid seeds. (Photo credit: Bayer)

Many modern farming tools – including basic irrigation and crop protection technologies – are out of reach for these farmers in the short term. Delivering the broader benefits of modern agriculture to these regions is a complex challenge, requiring focus on infrastructure, access to technology and education on effective farming techniques. It won’t happen overnight, and progress will require substantial public-private partnerships.

At the same time, significant progress is being made in the area that provides the most substantial opportunity for short-term impact. Modern seed varieties offer built-in resistance to drought and key pests, helping African farmers to better manage both food and water needs to boost their harvests and their quality of life. A public/private partnership, Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), is working to deliver these newer drought-tolerant and pest-resistant maize seed hybrids to the farmers who need them most.

Since the inception of the WEMA project in 2008, more than 100 royalty-free maize seed hybrids, under the DroughtTEGO® brand, have been approved for commercial release in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. Many seed companies now license these new hybrids and make them commercially available to African farmers. DroughtTEGO® seeds have been developed using modern plant breeding techniques to produce hybrids that require less water to better survive moderate drought conditions.

Additionally, WEMA introduced its first TELATM brand white maize hybrids developed using biotechnology in South Africa in October 2016 to address insect pest challenges. TELA hybrids offer both drought resistance and resistance to pests like the corn borer and fall armyworm, which commonly threaten African maize crops. TELATM hybrids are pending regulatory approvals for use in other African countries, including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Mozambique. WEMA hopes to secure all needed regulatory approvals to offer TELATM hybrids across sub-Saharan Africa by 2023.

Early harvests and test crops using WEMA seeds have shown substantial results, producing 25 to 35 percent more grain on average during moderate drought seasons compared with the common seed varieties used previously. Farmers planting DroughtTEGO® hybrids in Kenya experienced yields of 4.5 tons per hectare compared to the national average of 1.8 tons per hectare. That’s a tremendous boost in food security for smallholder farmers, even as they attempt to manage limited fresh water supplies.

This initial success has helped WEMA to expand its efforts to different African countries, with Ethiopia becoming the latest program participant last year. At the same time, WEMA partners such as the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Bayer are also focused on education programs like the Better Life Farming initiative to help African farmers better understand and employ best practices from other areas of the world.

Kenyan farmer holding corn from DroughtTEGO hybrid seeds. (Photo credit: Bayer)

While the potential for application of many modern agriculture tools in Africa and other developing areas of the world is dependent on infrastructure development and economic support, there are additional opportunities on the horizon to help smallholder farmers manage food and water security. Digital tools are becoming more practical in many areas of the world as inexpensive mobile devices become more common and network coverage expands. Increasingly, smallholder farmers use mobile devices to learn more about weather conditions, commodity prices and best practices to help them manage their crops and water supplies.

For example, The Climate Corporation, a subsidiary of Bayer, is rolling out Climate FarmRiseTM, an Android app that provides farmers with weather and agronomic information as well as current commodity prices. Available initially to farmers in areas of India, the app demonstrates the potential of wireless applications to deliver valuable insights that help farmers to improve their harvests, even when access to other modern tools is limited.

In an ideal world, smallholder farmers in developing countries would have equal access to the complete modern farming toolkit, including efficient irrigation, modern seed technologies, precision farming equipment and crop protections. But even working within the practical limitations of today’s developing nations, there is much that can be accomplished in helping these farmers to better manage their needs for food and water. WEMA seeds are already demonstrating a meaningful impact. When combined with continuing education and new digital tools, we can continue to move the needle in the right direction.  


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet.