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A Mexican-African project to develop better and more climate-tolerant maize varieties using traditional breeding techniques has been launched.

The partners involved in the Stress-Tolerant Maize for Africa (STMA) project aim to develop varieties that are more tolerant to heat, drought, diseases and low soil fertility than existing types. These efforts are meant to combat the devastating effect of ongoing climate change on maize growth in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The stress-tolerant varieties and hybrids are expected to increase maize productivity by 30-50 per cent for smallholders, according to one project partner, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).

STMA plans to develop, produce and promote 70 stress-tolerant varieties across 12 target countries, and aims to put improved maize varieties in the hands of nearly five-and-a-half million smallholder households by the end of 2019.

“The project will use modern breeding technologies that will confer the desired resistance to pests and diseases and tolerance to climatic stresses,” STMA project leader Tsedeke Abate said in a statement.

At present, more than 35 million hectares of maize fields in Sub-Saharan Africa are irrigated solely by rainfall, according to the CIMMYT, which is headquartered in Mexico. Because of climate change, droughts in Africa are set to increase in intensity and frequency. At the same time, maize productivity is further reduced by low soil fertility, a problem prevalent in many parts of Africa. Yet the majority of smallholder farmers cannot afford the recommended amounts of nitrogen fertiliser, the project participants say.

Peter Ngasa, the secretary-general of the Tanzania Agricultural Society, says the project will bring new hope to farmers in their struggle with climate change and plant diseases.
He explains that STMA will link up with national and regional initiatives to bridge the yield gap and “dramatically increase” maize productivity on smallholder farms.

The four-year project, launched on 18 March, will work with local seed firms to bring the improved varieties to market by the end of 2019, its participants say. It is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development.

The project will also take care to include women in the research and consider their needs in maize production and sales.