In Africa, more than 300 million people rely on maize as their main food source. Maize is especially essential in sub-Saharan Africa, that vast water-scarce area of 24.3 million square kilometers south of the Sahara Desert. The world’s poorest region, more than half of its estimated 785 million people1 toil daily as subsistence farmers under searing heat. Their harvests are unpredictable and usually thin, as drought often causes crop failure. As a result, farmers sometimes don’t harvest enough maize to feed their own families.
An ambitious five-year development project – Water Efficient Maize for Africa, or WEMA – aims to help remedy the situation. It seeks to develop a variety of drought-tolerant maize seeds, both conventional and biotech. Small-scale farmers would then be offered these seeds on a royalty-free basis. The African Agricultural Technology Foundation spearheads the project, assisted by a consortium of benefactors, scientists, researchers and agricultural organizations. Monsanto is contributing the proprietary germplasm, advanced breeding tools and expertise, and together with BASF is contributing drought-tolerance transgenes. A $47 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation funds the overall project.
Already, an estimated 400,000 acres are sown with drought-tolerant varieties of maize, giving farmers a 25-30 percent boost in yield.2 But the maize products developed by WEMA over the next decade could increase yields another 20 to 35 percent under moderate drought This would translate into about two million more tons of food during drought years in participating countries.3
And while biotech maize crops are its main focus, the project also intends to provide farmers with improved training and support, pest- and disease-management techniques, healthy soil and access to markets to sell their surplus. In time, these efforts could mean the difference between life and death.