As demand for maize rises in Africa, we explore modern technologies revolutionizing maize production and post-harvest management in Africa

As the demand for maize continues to surge across Africa, it is imperative to explore the modern technologies that are reshaping maize production and post-harvest management on the continent. Maize, an indispensable staple grain, constitutes approximately 30% of Africa’s total energy intake. Diverse in its consumption, it takes the form of maize meal, flour, cornbread, snacks, and beverages, deeply ingrained in the African diet. However, despite an annual maize production of roughly 90 million tons in Africa, a dependency on imports persists to fulfill approximately 30% of consumption needs. This article delves into the strategies and cutting-edge technologies that hold the potential to unleash Africa’s capacity for amplified maize production.

 Closing the Yield Gap:

Africa’s vast expanse of arable land presents the potential to cultivate more maize. Presently, Africa occupies 21% of global arable land, yet its contribution to the world’s agricultural output stands at a mere 7.4%, signaling substantial yield disparities. Specifically, maize yields in Africa are meager, averaging a mere 2.1 tons per hectare, which starkly contrasts with the global average of 5.8 tons per hectare and the North American average of 10.8 tons per hectare. The imperative task at hand is to bridge this yawning yield chasm, an indispensable goal for ensuring food security, especially in the context of the continent’s burgeoning population.

 Addressing Formidable Challenges:

Unlocking Africa’s maize production potential hinges on the proactive resolution of formidable challenges. The overreliance on rain-fed agriculture is a formidable obstacle, with a staggering 95% of agricultural practices in Africa relying on rainfall for irrigation. This vulnerability is underscored by the mounting unpredictability in weather patterns, a disconcerting trend for maize, which is extremely sensitive to fluctuations in meteorological conditions. Indeed, a study conducted in Ghana elucidated that climatic variables account for a staggering 40.8% of maize yield fluctuations during periods of drier-than-normal rainfall.

Another formidable adversary in the maize landscape is the ubiquitous presence of pests and diseases, which have the capacity to drastically diminish yields and undermine produce quality when not effectively managed. Maize crops are particularly susceptible to a gamut of pernicious agents, including the fall armyworm (FAW), maize streak virus, and stem borers. Among these adversaries, FAW stands out as particularly calamitous. The voracious larvae of FAW inflict widespread devastation on maize crops across all stages of their life cycle, feasting on the apex, leaves, and ears. This insatiable appetite translates into a catastrophic 50% loss in yield or, in some cases, the complete failure of entire crops.

 Furthermore, the lack of access to improved agricultural inputs compounds Africa’s production challenges. Smallholder farmers, who significantly dominate maize production on the continent, frequently encounter barriers to securing high-quality seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and modern agricultural technologies. The dearth of these critical inputs is a pivotal bottleneck inhibiting the attainment of higher yields and superior crop quality. This predicament is further exacerbated by the prevalence of traditional, labor-intensive farming practices that persist among many smallholder farmers, diminishing the efficiency of operations and resulting in subpar yields.

Post-Harvest Losses: A Looming Challenge

In addition to the aforementioned challenges, the specter of post-harvest losses casts a long shadow over maize production in Africa. Investigations by Africa RISING have unveiled disconcerting statistics, revealing that post-harvest losses in Tanzania’s maize-based systems range from 25% to 40%, with a staggering 47% attributed to maize alone. Poor storage practices account for a substantial portion of these losses, amounting to between 15% and 25% of the harvest, which translates to a substantial 150-200 kg per ton. These staggering losses necessitate farmers to augment their inputs and expand the land area under maize cultivation to meet their intended production targets.

 Modern Technologies: The Vanguard of Solutions:

African nations are resolutely exploring solutions to confront these multifaceted challenges in maize production. The imperative of climate change underscores the need for technologies that can safeguard production capacity and foster self-sufficiency in maize production to satiate the burgeoning demand for this dietary staple. To this end, governments in Africa have instituted policies that encompass subsidizing production inputs and the implementation of price protection schemes. However, it is essential to recognize that some of these policies, especially those leading to distorted consumer prices and supply volatility, have faced criticism from development banks, which deem them unsustainable.

 Emerging research posits that Africa’s paramount focus should be on policies and programs that emphasize non-monetary incentives. These include the advancement of technology and infrastructure, investments in irrigation, the promotion of precision agriculture, research services, and human development. Nevertheless, an emerging consensus is pointing towards the efficacy of production inputs, particularly hybrid seeds and fertilizers. Programs that incentivize investment in making these crucial materials more accessible to small-scale producers present a promising avenue for rural development in maize-producing regions.

 Key Innovations: Pioneering Solutions for Africa’s Maize Industry

Drought-Tolerant Maize Varieties:

 Recently developed maize varieties exhibit commendable grain yields even under conditions of short-term and moderate drought, mitigating the adverse impact of climate variability and enhancing crop resilience in Sub-Saharan Africa.

 Imazapyr-Resistant Maize for Striga Management:

 Maize varieties fortified with resistance to the herbicide imazapyr provide an effective bulwark against parasitic Striga invasions, a notorious yield-reducing menace.

 Emerging Pest Control Practices:

To counter the existential threat posed by fall armyworm, a range of insecticide products designed to eliminate FAW larvae in the soil and on the plant are now available on the African market, offering a more efficient alternative to traditional foliar applications. For example, FORTENZA Duo seed coating technology from Syngenta proves to be a powerful control agent for FAW. Farmers have used it to protect over 3000 tons of maize from FAW attacks in countries like Zambia.

 Vitamin A Biofortified Maize:

Traditional starchy white maize varieties, while widely grown, often lack optimal mineral and vitamin content. Recent advances in conventional breeding have boosted provitamin A content in maize, offering a viable avenue for bolstering community nutrition. Golden maize, enriched with beta-carotene, can be converted into vitamin A upon ingestion. More than 40 biofortified maize varieties are now accessible across Sub-Saharan Africa, resulting from the crossbreeding of Central and South American maize lines naturally rich in provitamin A with well-adapted lines that boast enhanced agronomic traits such as disease resistance and drought tolerance.

 Maize-Legume Rotation and Intercropping:

The strategic integration of maize and grain legumes in intercropping or rotation confers myriad benefits compared to continuous maize monoculture. Legumes augment nitrogen content in the soil through biological nitrogen fixation and mineralization, effectively meeting the nitrogen requirements of maize. Furthermore, this synergy between crops bolsters land efficiency, enhances nutrient utilization, and optimizes water use, all while curbing weed, pest, and disease infestations. Nevertheless, it is imperative to note that intercropping entails its own set of challenges, necessitating careful crop selection and spacing. Some field operations, such as mechanization and chemical weeding, may prove more challenging in intercropping systems.

 Pre-Emergent Herbicides for Weed Management:

Effective weed control is pivotal, particularly during the establishment and vegetative growth phases of maize, which extend up to 10 weeks after planting. Without robust weed control, maize yields are vulnerable to a staggering reduction of up to 50% on average, and losses can escalate to 80% if farmers neglect adequate measures. The predominant method of hand-weeding, employed by most smallholder farmers in Africa, is a labor-intensive practice requiring two or three repetitions for effectiveness. Shallow hoeing tends to agitate the soil, promoting weed seed germination. Pre-emergent herbicides emerge as a promising solution to curtail labor requirements, eliminating the need for manual weeding and sparing the soil from the detrimental effects of excessive tillage.

 Aflatoxin Management:

A common fungus, Aspergillus flavus, infests crops and food products, producing a pernicious toxin known as “aflatoxin.” The consumption of contaminated food by humans or livestock leads to the accumulation of aflatoxin in the body, inflicting severe harm to internal organs and blood.

Across Africa, the widespread and severe contamination of staple crops, animal feeds, and processed foods is fueled by favorable weather conditions, potent fungal strains, and inadequate post-harvest handling and storage practices. Fortunately, biocontrol technologies designed to combat aflatoxin have emerged, relying on natural competitors rather than industrial chemicals.

These agents have witnessed increasing adoption on larger swaths of farmland over the past decade. A notable example is “Aflasafe,” a non-chemical agricultural product developed by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), which significantly reduces aflatoxin levels in food. Aflasafe products are now available in several African countries, including Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, The Gambia, Uganda, and Zambia.

 Post-Harvest Management Technologies:

A significant proportion of post-harvest losses in maize occurs during the drying, processing, and storage phases. Innovations geared toward optimizing the efficiency of these crucial post-harvest handling stages exhibit promising potential in reducing losses.

One such technology, the “GrainPro Collapsible Dryer Case,” is renowned for enhancing the drying process, facilitating rapid drying at elevated temperatures, thereby enhancing grain quality and mitigating losses. This pioneering technology reduces damaged grain by a remarkable 41%, translating into a drop in the quantity of non-consumable damaged grain from 67.3 to 24.7 kg per ton, reflecting a 38% reduction. This, in essence, means that households, given the reported drying losses in Eastern and Southern Africa, could preserve approximately 32 kg per ton of produced grain, equivalent to a saving of US$10.

 Furthermore, low-cost mechanized shellers have demonstrated the capability to enhance grain quality, achieving an impressive 81% reduction in broken grain and a 38% reduction in impurities. With a shelling efficiency rate of 98%, this innovation substantially curtails food losses resulting from the inefficiencies inherent in manual shelling, cleaning, and winnowing, reducing them from 68 kg to less than 20 kg per ton.

 Lastly, hermetic storage bags have emerged as a potent solution to surmount storage challenges. By excluding air and moisture from the grains, they render it impossible for insects to thrive. Empirical evidence demonstrates that when deployed correctly, these hermetic storage bags effectively prevent insect damage to the grain, resulting in almost no observable damage in grains stored in this manner. This translates into a remarkable reduction in grain losses, exceeding 85%.

A Vision of Maize Self-Sufficiency

Africa’s ambition to attain maize self-sufficiency is within reach. However, realizing this vision necessitates a fundamental reevaluation of food production systems across the continent. It demands the unwavering support of policies that encourage the adoption of the aforementioned technologies by farmers throughout the region. The elimination of post-harvest losses through the application of these innovative technologies holds the promise of increasing the quantity of maize available for human consumption by up to 40%.  Our potential would be even greater if we matched the global maize yield average. Reflecting on the broader horizon, if Africa were to attain the global maize yield average, it could potentially produce an excess of maize to nourish its burgeoning population, thereby reversing the prevailing reality where it depends on smaller countries, such as Ukraine, despite its vast, fertile land and industrious people.

This feature appeared in ISSUE 6 of MILLING MIDDLE EAST & AFRICA MAGAZINE. You can read this and the entire magazine HERE