Kenyan smallholder farmers unbowed despite ravages of lethal maize disease

NAIVASHA, (Xinhua)  — The Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN) that has been ravaging the critical staple crop across East Africa since 2011 is yet to diminish the passion of local smallholder farmers.
Despite rollout of robust interventions to contain the disease, it remains a big threat to food and nutritional security in a region that is grappling with other challenges like population growth, shrinking arable land and climate change.   Kenyan smallholders have borne the brunt of ravages of Maize Lethal Necrosis and a significant number of them were at some point forced to replace cultivation of the cereal with other crops.  “I had to abandon maize cultivation and embraced Napier grass due to dismal harvest occasioned by the lethal Maize Lethal Necrosis,” said Purity Wanjiku, a farmer in Naivasha region located 90 kilometers northwest of Kenyan capital, Nairobi.  The middle-aged farmer told Xinhua during a visit at her farm on Wednesday that the last three years have been bad since the outbreak of MLN that has devastated maize planted by large and small scale farmers. “Before the disease struck, I used to harvest a minimum of 50 bags of 90 kilograms bags of maize in one acre. Currently, the harvest has really gone down, forcing me to plant Napier grass in large portions of my farm,” Wanjiku said.Nevertheless a significant number of her peers are still cultivating maize despite the high risk of losing an entire harvest to MLN. They prefer maize over other crops since it can be consumed in different forms and has higher nutritional levels. “Regardless of the little maize we harvest from the farm, it remains a precious commodity, because of the many ways we consume it even in little amount. But the Maize Lethal Necrosis remains a threat in this region,” said Wanjiku.
Wanjiku is optimistic that a solution to MLN menace will be found soon thanks to intensified research and public awareness. Kenya’s ministry of agriculture and international research agencies have prioritized the fight against MLN to minimize its adverse impact on the country’s food security. “Maize is a robust crop and is here to stay,” Dr. Boddupalli Prassana, Director of CIMMYT’s Global Maize Program, said while allaying fears from farmers on its possible demise due to an onslaught by virulent diseases and pests. Prassana noted that vibrant interventions initiated by CIMMYT, Kenya Agricultural Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) and seed companies in MLN-endemic regions have borne positive results. “We have worked to adopt internal controls for MLN-free seed production and commercialization since 2015,” Prassana told Xinhua. He disclosed that four hybrid MLN free maize varieties have already been released in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
According to Prassana, one variety has been in released in Uganda and Tanzania while two varieties have been released in the Kenyan market.  He added that these efforts have yielded good results for some seed companies who have drastically reduced losses and curbed the spread of MLN in their production fields and commercial seed lots.  Prassana observed that as they work toward commercializing MLN tolerant varieties, these seed companies have made good strides to strengthen their internal diagnostics and management efforts.  He further noted that five hybrid varieties will be released later this year while 19 varieties are currently undergoing National Performance Trails (NPT) in different countries in the region. “We plan to introduce 20 MLN maize free varieties in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) by 2020,” said Prassana.  He cautioned smallholder farmers who have realized massive loss at 100 percent cereal loss to stop recycling seeds more than twice but instead rotate crops in their farms. “This is the only way that farmers could help in the fight against MLN disease that has a long way before it is eradicated in the region,” Prassana noted.
Studies have shown that commercial seed flows have been the initial source of the spread of the MLN-transmitting viruses over huge geographical regions across East Africa.  As a result, seed companies in the region have also suffered substantial losses both in yield and profits from infested production fields. “Efforts to buffer farmers from MLN have also targeted seed companies to produce MLN-free commercial seed to reach smallholders and we are in the process of negotiating with donors to support them further in up scaling production,” said Prassana.  At the MLN screening facility in Naivasha quarantined and regulated environment to screen maize germplasm from public and private maize breeding programs is done, to develop MLN tolerant and resistant varieties.
Nine National Agricultural Research Institutes (NARS) from Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Zambia, Malawi, South Sudan and Mozambique are currently conducting research on MLN at the screening fertility.     The University of Nairobi and Ohio State University in the United States also have their seeds being tried in the facility. Fifteen seed companies from the region and other parts of the world have also supplied their seeds to the facility for testing.