Water Efficient Maize in Africa (WEMA) is led by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Key WEMA partners include the National Agricultural Research Institutes in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Monsanto.
The food supply crisis in Africa is well documented. But forecasters think it could get more grim. As the population increases and the effects of climate change on farmers’ ability to grow food worsen, the risk of hunger in Africa could rise by up to 20 percent by 2050, according to a study published by the World Food Programme.
To help tackle this daunting problem, we started working in 2008 to form the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, a public/private partnership that aims to improve food security and livelihoods among small farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa by developing hybrid maize (corn) seed that uses water more efficiently and resists insect-pests. This is important because maize is the main source of food for more than 300 million Africans.
The project has exceeded original expectations. The WEMA partnership successfully delivered its first drought- tolerant conventional white hybrid seed to farmers in Kenya a year ahead of schedule with the first WEMA seed harvest completed in February, 2014. Farmers experienced improved grain yield under both optimal and drought stress conditions, harvesting 4.5 tons per hectare compared to 1.8 tons per hectare harvested in the first farmer-managed demonstration trials.
Working with project leaders, Monsanto shared 600 elite parental lines of maize seed, our technical plant breeding know-how and our biotech drought-tolerant and insect protection traits. We also leveraged the expertise of our partners to develop locally adapted hybrids.
The WEMA partnership seeks to develop an accessible pipeline of conventional and biotech seeds for African farmers under the brand DroughtTEGO™. As part of our commitment, the WEMA partnership has made DroughtTEGO seed variety licenses available to all seed companies of any size to deliver these hybrid seeds to farmers, royalty free. In 2014, 27 new DroughtTEGO hybrids were approved for commercial release, far exceeding the original targets and timelines. New and even better hybrids are in the development pipeline and more than 15 seed companies have licensed new hybrids royalty free to make them commercially available to African farmers.
The WEMA project is now the largest tropical white maize breeding program in Sub-Saharan Africa and DroughtTEGO branded hybrids could enable farmers to harvest 20-35 percent more grain under moderate drought conditions compared to the seed they have historically planted. WEMA’s goal is for these seeds to improve food security and livelihoods for more than 25 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa.
WEMA’s successful management approach enabled the project partners to move quickly to address an unforeseen issue: the Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN) Virus, which spread quickly across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in 2012. Infected plants are stunted and the leaves lose their green color and die around flowering time.
The combined WEMA team of researchers planted nurseries in Chile, Kenya and United States to identify sources of resistance and selected new entries for the National Performance Trials for the WEMA project. Due to the quick response of the technical team, promising parental lines showing improved tolerance were developed and incorporated into the WEMA breeding program.