Under the scorching Zimbabwean sun, cattle seek shade among stunted thorn bushes in the drought-prone district of Zaka, where crops wither due to increasing temperatures and changing weather patterns.
Severe lack of rain across southern Africa has hit the country hard, with government officials saying a quarter of the population faces starvation. Many villagers are surviving on wild fruit.
There have been a series of poor harvests of maize, the country’s traditional staple crop. Late rains this year again wrecked the planting season, and the little that is growing has been destroyed by heat.
It may not help the immediate crisis, but science is providing a glimmer of hope for smallholder maize farmers in Zimbabwe. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre – known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT – is conducting trials in Zaka on hybrid maize seeds adapted to tackle drought and high temperatures.
The seeds are developed to survive dry conditions with 60% less water than normal and in temperatures of up to 35ºC, according to CIMMYT researchers. “If we get these new maize seed varieties it will help a lot,” said Ceaser Chavizha, a smallholder in Zaka in Masvingo province.
Like many farmers in the region, Chavizha has been surviving on food handouts as his crops have been reduced to dried husks. The El Nino-induced drought has wrecked arable fields, grazing pastures and water sources. The drought is high on the agenda at UN COP22 climate talks in Morocco, where world leaders and experts are discussing how to implement the landmark Paris Agreement signed last year.
The pact aims to cap global warming at below two degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. Once referred to as the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe used to export maize, but now aid organisations say it requires about two million metric tons a year to feed itself.
Cosmos Magorokosho, a senior scientist and maize breeder at CIMMYT, said the ultimate goal of hybrids was to develop long-term sustainable agriculture. “Basically it means transferring genes from one plant to another type so that you create a new type that has the characteristics that you want,” he said.
He said CIMMYT had received $500 000 (R7 million) funding from USAID to develop the new maize variety for drought-prone areas in Africa. More funds were needed to extend the project, and he criticised the Zimbabwe government’s delay in adopting new maize hybrids. “There is a layer of testing that is required by the authorities which is a little bit long … we would wish it is shortened so that the varieties can get to the farmers quickly,” Magorokosho said.
CIMMYT, a non-profit research project headquartered in Mexico, is also working on a vitamin A-rich maize variety, which is already in production in other parts of Africa and Latin America. This year, Zimbabwe’s government declared a state of disaster in most rural areas, with at least 2.4 million people in urgent need of food aid.
Sekai Makonese, another small-scale farmer in Zaka, welcomed the potential impact of scientific interventions, saying she was counting on hybrids becoming widespread soon.
“Long ago, we used to farm maize with no problems but now we have climate change and our crops fail before we harvest,” she said. The Zimbabwe government is yet to approve the mass distribution of the seeds, but the product is available at some agricultural outlets.