Introducing orange maize

Tendai Chara

Chikondoma Stadium, which is located at Mutoko Growth Point, is home to FC Mutoko, one of the top Eastern Region Division One football teams in the Mashonaland East province.Hundreds of local football followers throng this stadium each time the home team will be hosting rivals teams.

Last week, more than 1 000 people, the majority of them locals, literally invaded the pitch.

Those that were in attendance were, however, not football lovers.

Instead, they were farmers and other stakeholders in the agricultural sector who came to get information on a new Pro-Vitamin A, drought tolerant and nutritious maize seed variety — the orange maize.

At this Mutoko district seed fair, the first of its kind in the area, stakeholders had the rare opportunity to share ideas and learn from seed companies, agricultural extension workers, fertiliser and herbicide manufacturing companies, among other companies.

The seed fair was organised by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, known by its Spanish acronym, CIMMYT. The purpose of the fair was to introduce the new maize variety to farmers. It also coincided with the Mutoko district agricultural show.

Speaking during the launch, Dr Peter Setimela, a seed systems specialist with CIMMYT, chronicled how the orange maize variety was developed.

“Trials for orange maize have been successful in some African countries with 150 varieties of the drought-tolerant seed variety having been developed. As for Zimbabwe, this is the first orange seed variety to be developed, specifically for local farmers,” Dr Setimela said.

He also took the opportunity to clarify the difference between orange and yellow maize. Yellow maize is commonly referred to as “Kenya”.

“I know that in the past Zimbabweans had an unpleasant experience with contaminated yellow maize. The new seed variety that we are introducing is not yellow maize. Instead, we have developed for you a drought-tolerant and nutritious variety,” Dr Setimela said.

According to Dr Setimela, the orange variety reduces Vitamin A deficiency and is now preferred by many farmers in Zambia, Malawi and South Africa.

Vitamin A deficiency is a serious health threat that is prevalent in Southern Africa and may lead to blindness, reduced disease immunity and other health problems.

In Zambia, for example, it affects more than half of children under five years of age, according to a Feed the Future newsletter. Feed the Future is the US Government’s global hunger and food security initiative.

In Zimbabwe, one in every three children suffers from stunted growth (as much as 32 percent) or chronic malnutrition, which contributes to 12 000 deaths each year, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).  Malnutrition is most prevalent in Zimbabwe’s rural areas, which are home to over 70 percent of the country’s entire population (about 13 million).

While Vitamin A is available in oranges, dark leafy vegetables and meat, these are not always available or are too expensive for the ordinary person in Zimbabwe. As a result, most people eat a lot of white maize, which has no beta-carotene.

Orange maize can be eaten as nshima in Zambia or sadza in Zimbabwe. It can also be used to prepare other traditional foods made from maize.

CIMMYT is working with HarvestPlus, an international organisation that breeds and disseminates micronutrient-rich staple food crops to reduce hidden hunger in malnourished populations.

The orange maize project was initiated in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2004, but later moved to Mexico. Since the sub-tropical environments in Mexico are similar to those in Southern Africa, the seed developed in Mexico has adapted well to Southern Africa environments.

Seed system specialists from Zambia, South Africa and Malawi highlighted the success that farmers in their countries were reaping from the orange seed variety.

Mr Patrick Phiri, a seed systems specialist with Global Seeds, a Malawian seed company that produces drought-tolerant maize varieties, recommended the orange variety.

“Farmers in Malawi are reaping huge rewards from the orange maize. I am here to primarily share the experiences that we have had in the production of drought-tolerant varieties,” Mr Phiri said.

Mr Nico Mailula, who works in the department of agricultural research in the Limpopo province, South Africa, also spoke highly about drought-tolerant varieties such as the orange maize.

“There are no two ways about it. Such drought-tolerant varieties as the orange maize are the way to go. South African farmers can testify how orange maize has changed their livelihoods,” Mr Mailula said.

Mr Lister Katsvairo, a regional manager with HarvestPlus, also explained to the farmers the advantages of growing the orange maize variety.

“The variety has so many health benefits. One out of five children in Zimbabwe have Vitamin A deficiency. Vitamin A is needed for developing eyesight, boosting the immune system and improving skin quality,” said Mr Katsvairo.

The orange variety, according to Mr Katsvairo, is better than white and yellow maize. Orange maize is also popular for its twin cobbing traits and early maturity.

Zambia has since developed and released six varieties of orange maize.

Apart from the nutritional value, the orange variety also does well even if the rainfall is good.

CIMMYT has in the past conducted on-farm trials for orange maize in Mutoko and the trials were successful.

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