June 17, 2011 | By Roger Thurow

Countering Drought

Machakos, Kenya

This growing season in south-central Kenya has been a good test for the new drought tolerant maize varieties being bred in Africa.  This is a semi-arid area, but this year they can drop the semi.  Farmers report only three short periods of rain since the February planting time.

“Without this seed, I’d have nothing.  Nothing, like my neighbors,” says farmer Philip Ngolania.  He sweeps his hand to direct the eye first to his maize and then toward a neighbor’s plot.  Philip’s maize stalks, though looking thin and weak, have fairly uniformly produced large ears of corn.  His neighbor’s maize is shriveled and dead, the stalks have toppled in their feebleness and there isn’t a cob to be found.

The neighbor – and many of the farmers in the area – planted the traditional local maize called Mbembasitu, which means “our own maize seed.”  Philip planted the new drought tolerant variety developed by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and other partners under the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa program.  CIMMYT was the long-time home of Norman Borlaug, the Iowa plant breeder whose new wheat strains conquered famine in India, Bangladesh and other Asian countries in the 1960s Green Revolution.  Drought tolerant maize, conventionally bred in and for Africa, could be a significant innovation in holding back hunger on the continent, particularly as climate changes upset traditional planting rhythms.“The rain is very little here, but even with a little rain, this seed does well,” Philip said.  As the late morning sun intensified, Philip took off his jacket and hung it on one of the maize cobs.  The cob and the stalk held firm, refusing to bend.

The rains were indeed scarce, but they seemed to come at just the right time for Philip’s maize.  He planted the seed in dry soil in February, hoping that the seasonal rain would soon come.  “You can’t wait for it to rain and then plant, because you want to use every single drop of rain on the seeds,” he said.  This is in contrast to the practice of the maize farmers in the more moist and fertile western Kenya area, who wait for three days of rain before they plant.  There, they use the first rain to soften the soil; the three-day wait is to ensure that the rainy season has indeed started and that the first rainy day isn’t a premature start.  These different planting methods in the two regions of the same country, a day’s drive apart, illustrate one of the difficulties of bringing a Green Revolution to Africa; there are a myriad of eco-agricultural zones within each country that each require their own tailored seeds and farming practices.

It turns out that Philip got two days of rain – and fairly light rain at that – the same week he planted.  But it was enough to begin the germination.  Then there were several weeks of no rain.  The maize was ankle high and starting to wither – “I was starting to lose hope,” Philips says — when a second rain came.  It rained lightly for three days, but it gave his hardy maize another growth spurt.  Another couple of weeks passed with no rain.  The maize was hip high and beginning to tassel when rain fell again.

“Only two days of rain, then it went away,” Philip remembers.  “Since then, no rain.”  Until the night before I visited earlier this week, when a burst of rain passed through.  But you couldn’t tell by the parched soil.  It was very dry, nary a puddle nor a hint of mud.

Still, the new seed variety was giving him a harvest.  Philip was beginning to pick his maize when we arrived.  His neighbors whose crops had failed were starting to poach some of his cobs.

“They ask me for my secret, why I have cobs and they have none, and I tell them, ‘It is the variety I use.’  I’m always telling them they must change from the Mbembasitu to this new variety,” Philip says.

While the farmers usually keep a batch of the Mbembasitu seeds after harvest and use them to plant the following season – a practice which costs them nothing — the drought tolerant variety costs 270 shillings (a little more than $3) for two kilograms of seeds.  Philip bought four kilograms for 540 shillings, and considers it a good investment.

“Yes, it’s more expensive, but at least I have something to eat,” he says.  “My neighbor, he paid nothing and he gets nothing.”  Philip reckons he may harvest about four 90 kilogram bags of maize on his three-quarters of an acre – that would be a poor harvest in the western region, but in Machakos it is a miracle bounty given the drought.  His neighbor, in contrast, will have to pay about 3,000 shillings to buy just one bag of maize on the market.

Now, Philip asks, who got the better deal?  “I don’t understand the logic” of not paying for better seeds, he says.  He shakes his head, repeating an earlier statement: “You pay nothing, you get nothing.”

Farmers, he says, need to adapt to newer technology because “the climate is changing very fast.  Ever since I was born, I haven’t witnessed drought seasons like this year and last.”  That would be since 1942.

That, he insists, makes a drought tolerant maize variety essential.  He is a retired English and Kiswahili teacher who also plants pigeon peas, cow peas, tomatoes, pumpkins and cassava.  “If you are a keen farmer, you won’t go hungry,” he says.

Philip first used the drought tolerant variety during the October 2010 planting period (farmers in the Machakos area plant maize twice a year).  It was the first time the seed was available through Dryland Seed Ltd., a company that is multiplying the drought tolerant seed.  They sold out before the season began.  The same thing happened for the February planting season.  Now, farmers are already buying seed for October.

“They want to make sure they get it,” says Joseph Masila, Dryland’s marketing officer.

He had been spreading word of the drought tolerant variety a year before it hit the market.  He offered farmers small bags of trial seed.  In three days, he had run out, so eager were the farmers for something new.

Joseph also planted demonstration plots in key locations.  As we drove down the main paved road out of Machakos, he pointed to a small to a patch of flourishing maize.  It is right beside the Kasinga Redeemed Gospel Church.  The maize is visible to all those who pass by on the road, and to all the faithful who stop to worship.

“People can see it coming out of church,” Joseph says with a broad smile.  “We’ve asked the pastor to preach about it.  ‘If you want to end hunger, you must plant this seed.’  You know, pastors are very influential.”

And for any Doubting Thomas, there is that demonstration plot.  “Seeing,” says Joseph, “is believing.”


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Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.


The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

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The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

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