The study, being conducted by scientists at Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), aims to develop a maize variety that can grow in the arid and semi-arid lands.
According to Sylvester Anami, the lead researcher and a senior research fellow at JKUAT’s Institute of Biotechnology Research, the early stages of the study that started in 2011 with funding mainly from Kenya’s National Council for Science and Technology are showing positive results.
Anami says that the new maize variety is proving significantly tolerant to drought stress. The stems are stronger, its cells are arranged in a clear pattern and much greener, meaning that it has higher chlorophyll content and thus high yields are expected, he adds.
He revealed this in Nairobi during the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB) meeting last month (29 August).
The study, Anami explains, uses a gene silencing approach ― changing a plant’s gene without changing its DNA ― to improve tolerance to drought stresses in maize. This approach ensures that plants use their own stored energy.
He adds that the physical characteristics of this maize variety under dry conditions are similar to those that are grown in normal conditions.
According to Anami, Kenya is mostly covered by arid and semi-arid lands, thus the need to find drought-tolerant crop varieties. He adds that the country has experienced a decline in maize yields and could not be able to feed her rapidly growing population by the year 2050.
"Agriculture in the country is predominantly rain fed. This is hardly sustainable considering the increased demand for food caused by the rapidly growing population," Anami says.
Anami adds that, "Sustainable maize supply lies in the provision of drought-resistant variety and the new variety has higher chlorophyll content ― the substance that enables plants to manufacture food.".
But the main challenge to the study is inadequate funding and this might delay its end result.
Margaret Karembu, the director for the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter in Nairobi, tells SciDev.Net that the progress of this study shows the availability of research capacity in agricultural biotechnology in the country.
She explains that the study will help address problems of climate change and rapidly growing population in Sub-Saharan Africa. "This project is addressing a very important constraint to food security in the country," she adds.
Jane Otado, a senior official with Kenya's Ministry of Agriculture, tells SciDev.Net: "We need to do continuous awareness on biotechnology to the public and to the policymakers to enhance its success".
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.