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Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA)

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What if we could stop using Africa as an example of food scarcity and a non-existent agriculture infrastructure? This question is at the heart of our commitment to Africa.  That’s why Monsanto has been working to develop new technologies and seed that will help African farmers manage risk and ensure a more secure food supply.

The current food supply crisis in Africa has been well documented. But forecasters see something even more troubling on the horizon. As the population increases and climate change becomes a greater factor in food security, risk of hunger could increase up to 20 percent by 2050.* We started working with some distinguished partners five years ago to improve the resilience of African agriculture in the face of climate change.

WEMA Man in Corn Field

Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) is a public/private partnership project that aims to improve food security and rural livelihoods among smallholder farmers and their families by helping develop seeds that mitigate drought risk and manage insect pressure. Led by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), WEMA key partners include the National Agricultural Research Institutes in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Monsanto.

Monsanto’s commitment to this partnership was to develop a new drought-tolerant maize hybrid by the end of 2013. This improved seed will be a major step forward for rural African farmers, the economy and the continent’s food security. Additionally, we leveraged the expertise of our partners to develop locally adapted hybrids, and we donated the biotech drought-tolerant and insect protection traits.

*Climate Change And Hunger, Responding to the Challenge, November 2009, published by the World Food Programme, the International Food Policy Research Institute, the New York University Center on International Cooperation, the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, and the Walker Institute, University of Reading (United Kingdom).

Our Approach

We focused specifically on three avenues:

  1.  Deliver maize seed genetics and know-how for breeding efforts
  2. Offer agricultural expertise to develop the locally adapted hybrids
  3. Donate biotech drought-tolerant and insect-protection traits

These three avenues lead to maximizing yield under the specific challenges and stresses of an African climate.

Organization and Project Management on a Huge Scale

In phase one of the project, we built strong levels of trust with our partners that enabled the project to build testing networks and earn regulatory field trial approvals. Communication was key as our partners were spread across the globe, and included ten institutions on three continents in seven countries, each with their own cultures and different priorities.

We’re proud of the implementation of a sharing model that was beyond what any of our partners had envisioned when the project began. In all, we shared 600 inbred lines of corn seed. The partners’ ability to work with different cultures and organizational expertise enabled us to exceed the goals we set, and we’ll be able to deliver the seed to farmers a year ahead of schedule. Independent reviewers and partners concluded that WEMA was one of the best public/private partnerships they had ever seen and highly recommended funding for phase two.

Phase Two. Moving Forward.

As we enter the next phase of the WEMA project, we will continue to develop a pipeline of conventional and transgenic drought-tolerant and insect-pest resistant maize hybrids for Africa. We’re also committed to developing a deployment system that allows seed companies of all sizes to access and deliver WEMA varieties to farmers. It’s anticipated that at least 25 novel hybrids will be developed and delivered: five in 2013, five in 2014, six in 2015, seven in 2016 and five in 2017.  These WEMA varieties are expected to enable farmers to harvest 20-35 percent more grain under moderate drought conditions. It’s the goal of the partnership that by 2017, these seeds will improve food security and the livelihoods of more than 25 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.

Adapting Quickly

Because of the WEMA project management success while working on the drought-tolerant and insect-protected seed, our team was able to move quickly, utilize our resources and address an unforeseen issue. The Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN) Virus spread quickly across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in mid-2012. This disease results from the combined infection by two viruses: Maize Chlorotic Mottle Virus (MCMV) and either Maize Dwarf Mosaic Virus (MDMV) or Wheat Streak Mosaic Virus. Infected plants are short and the leaves show chlorosis and die around flowering time.

The combined WEMA team researchers planted nurseries in the U.S., Chili and Kenya to identify sources of resistance and select new entries for the National Performance Trials for the WEMA project. The result of this quick action is that most of the new hybrids in the WEMA African seed program are MLN tolerant.


The WEMA project is now the largest breeding program in sub-Saharan Africa, bigger than any seed company or private institution. This breeding program has been used as an example in interactions with the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) New Vision for Agriculture, WEF Grow Africa, the G-8 New Alliance for Food and Nutrition Security, and as a model for public/private partnerships at numerous summits and international events, including the World Food Prize.

Food security in Africa is challenged by population growth, climate change and drought, but innovative new tools can help farmers in Africa manage risk and improve food security.  Through partnerships and investment in science we focus on creating innovative new tools for farmers in Africa.

For more information on Water Efficient Maize, visit http://www.monsanto.com/improvingagriculture/Pages/water-efficient-maize-for-africa.aspx

This article is an excerpt from Monsanto’s 2012 Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability Report. To see the whole report, please visit Monsanto.com

2 Responses to "Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA)"

  1. Thank you for fast tracking for solutions against Maize Lethal Necrosis disease and drought. I look forward to getting your products to farmers in Uganda, through the WEMA product licensing arrangement.

    Kampala, UGANDA


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