Mathews Dida, a maize breeder in the school of agriculture and food security at Maseno University, developed two maize varieties that produce a natural chemical that suppresses the growth of Striga weed, also known as witch-weed.
The varieties are undergoing Distinctness Uniformity and Stability tests, which are done by seed regulators like Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS) to establish if a newly developed seed variety is clearly distinguishable from existing varieties on the market. The varieties will be available for commercial production by the end of 2014.
Dida says the new varieties could contribute to food security and poverty alleviation in Kenya and the entire East Africa region.
"These newly developed maize hybrids have passed national performance trials conducted between 2009 and 2011. All requisite assessment by KEPHIS, which ascertains effectiveness of newly developed seeds, points to their success," he says.
Striga weed destroys crops estimated to be worth US$10-38 million per year in Kenya.
Dida says the new varieties mature between 20 and 50 days earlier than those currently on the market. "They flower in 60 days and mature in 80 days. This represents a reduction from 125 to 80 days," he tells SciDev.Net, adding that the varieties yield between nine and 12 tonnes per hectare.
Although the seeds may thrive in almost all parts of the country, Dida focused their suitability on mid-elevation areas and lowlands, such as the Lake Victoria region, and coastal parts of the country which receive relatively scarce rainfall.
His research was partly funded by a US$200,000 grant from Kenya's National Council for Science and Technology.
According to Dan Makumbi, a maize breeder at Kenya's regional office of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, development of these hybrid maize varieties will go a long way towards fighting hunger in Kenya and across East Africa by ensuring good yields.
Makumbi tells SciDev.Net that the work builds on efforts by researchers from other institutions to develop maize varieties resistant to Striga weed. For example, researchers at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute have developed resistant varieties that are naturally pollinated by insects, birds or the wind.
"The good news is that this innovation is bringing farmers hybrid maize seeds that are resistant to the devastating weed, higher yielding and attractive to those in the seed business," says Makumbi.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.