1. Farming in Southern Africa takes good crops, ingenuity, and rain. But can it work with two out of three?

  2. A Change in Seasons: Confronting the message of drought in a shifting maize belt 

    Text by Paul Cox | Photos: Toby Smith

  3. Setting the Scene 

    2016, the planet’s hottest year on record, brought unprecedented conditions to many regions of the globe. But nowhere were people hit as hard as in Southern Africa. Below the equator, the year began with a dry summer that pushed a gathering drought to crisis point.

  4. “The hottest temperatures Southern Africa has ever experienced brings its devastating effects, threatening some 27 million people…”  

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  5. The rainy season that ended 2015 and began 2016 brought the lowest rainfall totals that Southern Africa had seen in 35 years.

  6. Five countries eventually declared states of national emergency and called on the international community for billions of dollars in food aid for the estimated 32 million people in the region who saw their food security evaporate.

  7. In Zambia, farmers in the maize belt waited for the rain in an atmosphere of uncertainty. Smallholders are responsible for more than half of the country’s cultivated land, and rain is their livelihood. For them the drought was part of a frightening trend that has turned their world on its head.

  8. Zambia is a maize growing country, and this fact is reflected in nearly every meal. Zambians get well over half of their daily calories from this crop, a reliance on maize that surpasses even Mexico and Guatemala, where the crop originated.

  9. This spells trouble on a national scale when drought visits the country’s southern maize heartland. And it’s happening so frequently that climatologists believe the entire maize belt is shifting north.

  10. In some years Zambia is a maize basket for the wider region, while in other years it struggles to feed itself. Because of this, it has constructed a huge system of maize reserves, a network of silos and storage sheds built throughout the maize belt to store harvests.

  11. The Food Reserve Agency now purchases the majority of small farmers’ maize production. This system was created for droughts – but years like this one test its limits.

  12. All signs suggest that the belt of reliable smallholder maize production is moving north for good, so the government is constructing a whole new reserve system in more northern areas.

  13. The migrated infrastructure includes this facility in Serenje with room to store 19,370 metric tons of grain. Here it’s apparent that farmers, and food security, are holding strong despite the drought.

  14. Maize breeding agenda 

    Adaptation means more than just moving locations. Expanding the smallholder maize belt requires maize varieties that meet the particular challenges of the north. The copious rainfall there makes drought a minor worry, but it also leaches nutrients from the soils.

  15. Maize is very sensitive to this leaching, and most varieties respond with low yields, especially for small farmers who can’t just keep adding fertilizers.

  16. Kabwe Maize Research Station

    The crop itself has to adapt. Through concerted and ongoing breeding efforts, new maize types are being developed, locally adapted, and tested in Zambia using material from around the world. Here at the Kabwe Research Station, collaborators from the Zambian Agricultural Research Institute (ZARI) and International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) work with farmers to introduce new varieties that perform better in low-nutrient soils as well as with less rain.

  17. ZARI, which releases these varieties, also keeps its own collection of Zambian maize with the traditional traits farmers want. Researchers collect these on yearly expeditions to farms in remote regions of the country.

  18. Developing the right new varieties for the country is a process of combining the familiar with the exceptional: picking qualities from well adapted local landraces, but also from the tens of thousands of other types of the world’s most widely grown crop.

  19. Orange Maize 

    At recent field days, farmers have been asking for maize that is drought ready, consistently yielding – and orange. Orange maize has been introduced by ZARI and its partners in recent years for its high vitamin A content.

  20. More than half of Zambian children are deficient in vitamin A, which can result in poor immunity and impaired vision. The shift from familiar white maize to orange varieties, bringing in diversity from the crop’s Latin American homeland, is a reminder that producing good food is about more than just quantity.

  21. As the drought continues, it’s clear that a regional problem needs regional answers. This is the inspiration driving the Southern African Development Community, which launched a regional appeal for emergency drought relief in July 2016 – while also carrying forward its own long-running plans to secure Southern Africa’s crops.

  22. Twenty-five kilometers outside of the Zambian capital, Lusaka, the SADC Plant Genetic Resources Centre holds an enormous regional collection of seeds from all of its member countries.

  23. SADC Genebank

    With contributions coming in since 1989, the seed bank conserves samples of more than 17,000 crops, including 2,229 types of maize. These allow breeders across the region to access the full heritage of Southern Africa’s maize diversity, bringing adaptations across borders to meet the challenges that farmers share.

  24. Crop collections like these exist so that breeders and farmers will always be prepared for an uncertain future. In Zambia, surprise rains in March saved the 2016 maize crop. Neighbouring countries were not so fortunate, however, and the food security crisis continued to affect millions of people.

  25. When this drought has ended, more challenges will surely come to test maize farmers, in Southern Africa and around the world. The uncertainty will continue. But with the right maize, a lot of ingenuity, and a little rain, so will the harvest.