Pledge Award Winner: Water Efficient Maize for Africa

By S. Duncan 7/14/2009

There is a region in the world some say is worse off today than 30 years ago. The people living there hardly have any money or food. The farmers growing the food are growing less and less every year, even though there are more farmers every year. It’s a place where progress seems to be going in reverse.

As the rest of the world tries to help by giving food, one group is actually trying to help by following the motto: “If you give a man a fish, he will have a single meal. If you teach him how to fish, he will eat all his life.”

More than 270 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are living in extreme poverty and producing 20 percent less than they did in 1970s.

As three-quarters of the world’s severe droughts over the past 10 years have occurred in Africa, drought ranks very high on the list for limiting maize production -- the staple diet for the people of SSA. While corn crops in the U.S. and Europe are yielding 150 bushels per acre, farmers in SSA are growing on average only 25 bushels per acre. According to experts, climate change will only worsen the problem.

Because more than 90 percent of SSA cropland is rain-fed and is likely to remain so, reducing drought risk, stabilizing yields, and encouraging investment in hybrid seed and fertilizer is fundamental to enable a green revolution and economic development in Africa. A team at Monsanto decided to try something that carries a lot of risk for the company and had never been done before: give away technology in corn, its biggest money-making crop -- for free.

“Monsanto has contributed significant resources to the project,” Mark Lawson, Monsanto yield and stress platform lead, said. “This includes white corn germplasm, the expertise that we have in conducting molecular breeding and a royalty-free license to our transgenic drought technology for small farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

The team broke new ground in agriculture by forming a public-private partnership called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) and successfully secured $47 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to fund the project. The partnership is considered a model for a new paradigm of technology-sharing within the agriculture sector. WEMA combines conventional and molecular breeding, genomics and biotechnology techniques developed within Monsanto’s commercial program to develop drought-tolerant maize for smallholder farmers in Africa. The project is led by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. It includes the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the national agricultural research services systems (NARS) in Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Mozambique and Uganda.

This unique partnership is expected to develop seeds that can increase yields 20-35 percent under moderate drought conditions compared to current varieties, resulting in 2 million additional tons of food and 14-21 million people having more to eat during moderate drought years. The five countries that have committed to joining the WEMA project have agreed to facilitate efforts to develop science-based regulatory systems in their respective countries. The project will also build the capacity of the partner NARS institutions by providing training and experience in the development of biotechnology crops.

“Not only is the goal of this project is to bring food security to the small-holder farmers of sub-Saharan Africa by helping stabilize their yields in times of drought but [it is] to also help them produce enough to enable them to actively participate in their local agricultural economy long-term,” Vanessa Cook, Monsanto WEMA project lead, said. “Although there are just five core countries involved in the project today, a long-term goal is to enable all farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to have the choice of planting drought-tolerant hybrid corn.”

According to Cook and Lawson, the project is moving forward rapidly.  The first five years of the project have been approved by the Gates and Buffet foundations, and the group now has the majority of its positions filled. The team has successfully achieved almost all of its first year goals.

“We are testing Monsanto’s first transgenic-drought event in South Africa and are collaborating with CIMMYT to develop new breeding populations and to expand our testing network in SSA,” Cook said. “We are working closely with the NARS in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique and South Africa to help them develop controlled drought testing sites that can be used for transgenic testing in 2010 and beyond.”