Mozambique looks to improved seeds as it struggles with the impacts of a changing climate

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

April 18, 2018

Near the rural town of Chokwe, some three-hours’ drive from Mozambique’s capital city of Maputo, Armahdo Bule clears his fields, preparing to plant maize, beans and rice in a few months. But he is unsure if the rains will come at all.

“The way the climate is changing, it has brought a lot of problems,” Bule, a 59-year-old farmer and secretary of the local farmers association, told the Alliance for Science. “The month that it used to rain, now it rains later than that. Last year, we planted beans in July. But we didn’t make anything because the rain didn’t come and the temperature was high.”

Bule and other farmers in Mozambique’s Gaza Province also complain that the changing weather is encouraging increased pest attacks on their fields, as warmer weather reduces the effect of pesticides and make pests more active.

Farmer Armahdo Bule prepares his fields and waits for rain. Photo Alliance for Science

Celina Issai Chirindza, a 57-year-old farmer with more than four decades of experience in farming, is unhappy. “At first, we used to get good produce. The pest infestation was less. But the weather change is leading to many pests which are destroying my crops. Now we don’t have good production. As a result, my children are suffering. Without food, they are unable to go to school or the hospital,” she explained.

Farmers are not the only ones who have observed the changing weather patterns. A long-term analysis by officials from the nation’s irrigation agency has shown that the rains now fall for a shorter duration than previously. More than three decades ago, the rainy season used to last for five months. But now, it lasts for just two to three months. “In the 30-year analysis, the rainfall has moved. Before it started in October, and now it starts in December or January. So now we have more time of drought than before, because the [rainy season] ending period of March hasn’t changed,” said Soares Almeida Xerinda, chairman of the government irrigation organization Hydraulics of Chokwe.

Ahead of every planting season, farmers would usually prepare their lands and wait for the first rain before putting their seeds in the soil. But Samuel Camilo, head of the Chokwe Research Station of the National Agricultural Research Institute (IIAM) of Mozambique, now sees that tradition turning into a worrying trend. The first rains encourage farmers to plant, he said, but then no more rains follow, causing farmers to suffer huge losses. “These years, the rains come late,” Camilo explained. “When the first rain comes, farmers go ahead and plant, expecting more rain so the seed will germinate well. But the rains stop after that. You can see maize and groundnut [peanut] not germinating well because there is no rain and the crops dry up.”

In Mozambique, about 64 percent of the population is food insecure, 55 percent live in poverty, 40 percent are undernourished and life expectancy is only 48 years. Small-scale farming is the main employment opportunity for about 80 percent of the workforce, but only about two-to-five percent of farmers have access to irrigation facilities, with the rest depending on rain-fed agriculture.

When the rains fail, farmers turn to a common alternative source of income: cutting down trees to make charcoal. But this practice only increases the nation’s vulnerability to climate change impacts. “They are devastating forests and this will worsen the effects of drought,” Camilo explained. “We are encouraging farmers to find alternative sources of livelihood instead of charcoal.”

A Mozambique maize field struggles to survive drought. Photo Alliance for Science

Extremely long droughts — periods when they don’t see rains for up to two years — are now common in Mozambique. The most recent prolonged drought was 2016. “There was no water in the irrigation canals and it was a big loss of investment in the province,” Xerinda of the irrigation authority explained. “The impact was very bad because the farmers lost the crops that they have. It wasn’t only the crops that were lost. Some farmers work with the banks to get inputs, including seeds and fertilizers. To date, the farmers are facing the [economic] consequences of the drought and haven’t recovered yet.”

Xerinda added: “With the drought, there is no vegetation for animals like cattle. Everything dies.”

Some farmers relocated to other parts of the country in pursuit of weather suitable for farming. But even that made no difference because the drought was so prolonged and widespread. “The problem was there from 2014 through to 2016, when it wasn’t raining and the weather was dry,” farmer Celina Issai Chirindza explained. “I had to migrate because I don’t want to stop agriculture.”

Natural disasters like extreme drought and floods are prevalent in Mozambique, and the country has experienced about 15 protracted droughts over the last 25 years, according to officials running the country’s irrigation systems. But they say the 2016 drought was an extreme event they hadn’t seen in a long time, affecting not only Mozambique, but the entire Southern African region. Although the rains eventually returned in 2017, they produced reduced amounts of precipitation. As a result, the dam that supports the Chokwe irrigation system is currently operating at less than half its capacity.

“The drought started in 2015, but we still had water in the irrigation system,” Xerinda said. “In the year 2016, there was no rain at all. Since we got rain from January 2017, by now we should get the full capacity of the dam. But it’s not happened. Now, the dam is at 56 percent of its capacity. So it’s about four years in a row that we are having less than normal rainfall.”

The Chokwe district has one of the biggest irrigation systems in Southern Africa. It covers 33,848 hectares of irrigated land, which can support about 12,300 farmers. But less than 20 percent of the region’s farmers use the facility, with the others depending on rain-fed agriculture. Though government officials in Chokwe say they are developing more dams to give farmers access to irrigation, they are convinced the use of improved seeds will be a better long term solution to the problem of drought.

“We are constructing two new dams to develop agriculture. But our focus is on improving seed quality. And we are working with the agric center on that. We need new technologies,” said Artur Manuel Macamo, administrator of the district.

The National Agricultural Research Institute of Mozambique (IIAM) is developing a number of improved seeds to help farmers, including the drought-tolerant Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) varieties. The WEMA project is a cooperative effort coordinated by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and involving public sector scientists in South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.

Though the research is still in its early stages in Mozambique, scientists and other stakeholders are upbeat WEMA will make vast difference in the lives of farmers. “The idea is to bring technology that will improve the production and productivity of these small farmers,” Camilo explained. “What we are trying to do is to test crops or varieties that are tolerant to drought stress. Climate change is really affecting our farmers.”

Farmer Chirindza is also hopeful: “WEMA has showed good seeds that can cope with pests and the weather. This is a good transfer of technology.”