By Karen Sanje
MZUZU, Malawi (AlertNet) - Less than three years after Ezelina Nyirongo reluctantly abandoned cultivation of her favourite local maize varieties, the 48-year-old from Rumphi in northern Malawi is thinking of going back to them.
Back in 2010, Nyirongo was advised by agricultural extension officers working in her area, near the city of Mzuzu, to switch from late-maturing local maize to new hybrid varieties.
“The hybrid maize varieties they recommended we start growing have been maturing a little earlier than the local varieties, at least before the rains finished,” said Nyirongo. “And the harvest has also been a little better than when I was growing the local maize varieties.”
But now, officials from the ministry of agriculture and food security and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are encouraging farmers to plant indigenous maize again, alongside the hybrid varieties.
“This is for adaptation to the effects of climate change, both by way of growing the local varieties themselves, which are more resilient to harsh climatic conditions, and production of early-maturing hybrid varieties,” Malawi’s deputy minister of agriculture and food security, Ulemu Chilapondwa, told AlertNet.
The ministry is working on getting this message out to all Malawians who live in rural areas and rely mainly on agriculture for their livelihoods, he added.
This translates to about 85 percent of the southeast African nation’s population of around 16 million, as only 15 percent of Malawians are based in urban areas.
Maize is the main staple food for most Malawians. Other key crops are rice and cassava.
SHORTER RAINY SEASON
Chakalipa Kanyenda, country coordinator for Find Your Feet, an NGO that promotes climate-resilient agriculture techniques, said that with the rainy season shortening due to climate change, farmers need to grow early-maturing maize varieties.
On average, most hybrid maize varieties mature within 60 to 80 days, while local maize varieties take between 75 and 120 days, he noted.
“Because of climate change, the rainfall period rarely reaches the 120-day mark these days, which means that those growing just the local maize varieties may not harvest anything sufficient,” Kanyenda said.
But local maize varieties are more resilient to the dry spells that are increasingly interrupting the rainy season, enabling farmers to hedge their bets if they plant both, he added.
“It is the same principle as with human beings. When you go to areas you are not used to, you will struggle a bit to adapt to the weather,” he explained. “The local maize varieties have been grown in a number of these areas for a long time. They are more suited to the conditions, unlike the hybrid varieties most of which have been introduced to the areas recently.”
Mahara Nyirenda, an agriculture consultant for the Development Fund of Norway, which is backing climate change adaptation in Malawi, said preliminary findings of research conducted on local and hybrid maize varieties with selected farmers across the country indicate that the difference in the maturity period between the two may not be as wide as previously thought.
“In a number of cases, the local maize varieties we are testing have matured almost at the same time as the hybrid varieties. However, the local maize varieties have proven more resilient to the effects of climate change, such as dry spells and heavy downpours,” he said.
“We are still in the trial phase, but once a breakthrough is made, we will recommend the varieties we are testing to farmers across the country,” he added.
The hybrid maize varieties wilted easily in dry spells, and took time to recover, Nyirenda said. During extended downpours, these varieties also developed yellow leaves. This did not happen with the local varieties being tested, he said.
Chilapondwa, the deputy agriculture minister, said farmers also need to grow local maize varieties for economic reasons, because they are easy to store and seeds can be obtained from previous harvests.
The use of costly pesticides is an additional factor, because hybrid varieties are more susceptible to weevils.
“I did not apply pesticides to my harvest of local maize, and I could store them before shelling,” said farmer Nyirongo. “But stored, either shelled or not, the hybrid maize harvest does not survive without applying pesticides to it.”
Karen Sanje is a Malawi-based journalist with an interest in climate issues.