Maize production per hectare in Africa is 40 per cent below that in developed countries.
It is within this context that experts are calling for implementation of various farming techniques such as intercropping to fill the production gap on the continent.
The experts were speaking on Wednesday in Kigali, at a training workshop on sustainably increasing maize production in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Participants included those involved in farmer field schools from four focus countries for maize intensification (Mali, Mozambique, Rwanda and Zambia), about five persons from each country.
The three-day workshop which ends today seeks to strengthen capacities of focus countries’ extension workers on the use of cover crops in maize growing.
Africa Progress Report 2014 shows that Africa’s food imports bill (excluding fish) is worth $35 billion every year, despite its agricultural potential, including presence of fertile soils.
Maize is one of the most important cereal crops in Africa and preferred staple for about 900 million poor consumers, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Most of the maize produced and consumed in Sub-Saharan Africa comes from smallholder rural farmers working under difficult conditions such as poor soils, inadequate access to inputs and harsh climatic conditions.
As a result, maize yield is low compared to other regions with easy access to inputs, specifically nitrogen-heavy fertilisers, according to experts.
Speaking at the workshop, FAO representative in Rwanda Attaher Maiga observed that maize is a staple food in Sub-Saharan Africa, making up a significant portion of the people’s daily diet.
Maize occupies more than 30 million hectares of land in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to FAO statistics, 2015.
However, Maiga said Africa produces about 40 per cent of the developing world average maize production.
Improving yields while at the same time preventing associated negative environmental effects through sustainable intensification is a critical step in Africa’s development, the experts noted.
Maiga attributed low maize production to drought; weed infestation; pests and diseases; improper variety selection; and declining soil fertility.
Additional challenges include limited access to financial resources and lack of necessary farming skills.
Cover crops can help in maize crop intensification
Integrating legume crops with maize, either through intercropping or rotation, Maiga noted, has numerous benefits that include positive impacts on soil fertility which can help increase maize yields.
Legume crops, also known as pulses, include pigeon peas, Desmodium and Mucuna, among others.
The use of leguminous crops and cover crops directly address several of the major constraints that limit yields, including low soil fertility or nutrient deficiency, insect pest, weed infestation, erosion and drought.
Dr Fagaye Sissoko, an agronomist at the Institut d’Economie Rurale in Mali, said that maize yield per hectare is about two tonnes in Mali, requiring improvement in farming practices and management of cover crops to increase yield.
Speaking at the workshop, Dr Claver Ngaboyisonga, a researcher in maize crop at Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB), said the current average maize produce in Rwanda is over 3.3 tonnes per hectare, which participants said is relatively high considering the African context.
He attributed the improvement in maize yield to the Government’s Crop Intensification Programme, where seeds and fertilisers are availed to farmers under subsidy, land use consolidation and crop rotation mainly for maize and soya or beans among other approaches.
Maize produce in the country was below one tonne per hectare in the year 2007.
Ngaboyisonga said maize varieties that RAB tries in its search station produce up to 10 tonnes per hectare.
“There are some challenges, including farmers who still grow [maize] varieties which have not been certified. While many lack adequate farming skills on crop spacing, others lack enough fertilisers which result in low yield per hectare,” he said.
Figures from the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources show that over 374,000 tonnes of maize were produced in 2016.
The ministry announced that expected maize produce in 2017 is over 781,000 tonnes.