Hope for farmers as research attempts to address maize virus

Maize facing imminent threat as disease creeps in. Photo Reject file picture
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When Purity Wanjiku Wangombe harvested maize produce from her six hectare farm in 2012, she was the happiest farmer in the whole of Mirera village in Naivasha sub-County.

However, her happiness was shortlived. She is in agony because her large farm has been reduced to a small kitchen garden because of Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN) virus.

Wanjiku’s last bumper harvest was in 2012 when her farm produced many sacks of maize before the lethal disease sneaked in, tampering with maize production that was for a long time lucrative.

“The first time I noticed funny lice on my maize plantation was in 2013.  I later realized that something abnormal had caught up with my crops,” narrates Wanjiku. She notes: “I then only managed to harvest five sacks of maize from large farm which is not enough to feed my family.”

When she was asked how the disease had thwarted her system of crowing maize crop, Wanjiku could not hesitate to figure out how the virus had slapped her on the face.

First the elderly farmer can no longer get a bumper harvest even though the large chunk of land is still available. For instance, her last attempt to grow maize in a large scale was when she used four bags of maize seeds, supplemented with indigenous seeds but still had a poor return.

According to Wanjiku, out of the maize she had planted, her expectation was to reap heavily. However, she managed to garner only five sacks of maize and this was a real set back.

Currently Wanjiku’s farming has been reduced to a tiny kitchen garden. She still hopes that there will be a solution to curb the maize disease menace in the area and things will be back to normal.

“I still plant maize to see if there will be an improvement. I acquired seeds from Meru which I planted in this garden but I fear it will not do any better,” says Wanjiku as she points at her maize plantation.

It is clear that Wanjiku is in for another shock because the plants have not shown any signs that they will do well.

To make ends me, Wanjiku hopes an alternative to the maize will offer her a better source of livelihood.

She has now changed to growing Boma rods (grass) which is a form of cattle feed. Wanjiku sells the grass to local dairy farmers for sustainability, though she is quick to point out that it does not pay much.

She is thinking of moving into dairy farming in the near future. However, Wanjiku who has not bought any understand that taking care of the animals is costly and needs extra man power.

Even though maize growing  in Mirera has greatly declined, Wanjiku hopes that their pride will be restored.

Through research on disease resistance and drought tolerant maize varieties that is enduring in the country, a solution is soon surfacing.

Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) in partnership with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT) is working tirelessly to restore self-satisfaction in most Kenyan farmers.

There are various research facilities in the country that are working together to come up with more tolerant maize seed varieties that will do well in any weather and soil condition across the country.

These facilities include Maize Lethal Necrosis (MNL) screening facility in Naivasha’s Kiboko Crops Research Station among others.

“There has been a tremendous progress in research of an alternative maize crop disease control since the establishment of MLN screening facility in September 2011 when we collaborated with KALRO to put up the research facility in Naivasha,” said Dr Prasanna Boddupalli, CIMMYT Global Maize Program Director.

He notes: “This facility is one of its kind because it has not been presented anywhere in the world. The screening machine has the capacity to provide excellent information in maize germplasm that is resistant to the deadly disease (MLN).”

Speaking to a group of journalists at the facility in Naivasha, Boddupalli said that there is tremendous progress in researching on MLN virus.

Until September 2013, new disease resistant maize varieties had been produced. Ninety per cent of materials with broad area of germplasm have been realized, even though only five percent of the findings were confirmed is hopeful for the farmers, mostly small holder farmers who are majorly affected by the disease.

He says control of the disease will restore and improve the livelihood of maize farmers, mostly in East and Southern Africa.

According to Boddupalli, five MLN tolerant hybrids have been releases in East Africa; two in Uganda, two in Kenya and one in Tanzania. Hybrid MLN resistant variety Buzuka UH534 has been released to farmers for a trial.

Boddupalli says 22 MLN high level resistances to diseases hybrids are in place for research. By 2020 CIMMYT will have 20 MLN tolerant and or resistant varieties in East Africa.

However, Boddupalli warns farmers to be cautious about the disease even though control is in progress. He encourages rotational farming and planting of the same time in a particular planting cycle to control chances of the disease spread.

“Over 40 percent of people around the globe depend on maize as a staple food. This means there is much need to grow maize crop in whatever climate condition it may b” says according Dr Martin Kropff, Director General International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT).

Kropff says the research on finding ways to control maize diseases is tremendous. He notes most of diseases especially maize viruses come due to climate changes.

“However, the menace can be controlled through resistance and or tolerant maize breeding,” explains Kropff.

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