To the South Sudanese, sorghum is the closest to the king of crops. Its flour is used to make Kisra, flat bread made from sorghum flour and the most important meal for many communities. The flour is also used to make Asseeda – popular Sudanese porridge.
Sorghum can be grown in a wide range of soils and is resistant and tolerant to salinity and poor soils where it can still produce grain.
But coming closely behind sorghum is maize, a crop that has received even more prominence with the growth in urbanization. Maize used to prepare Dura, which is cooked maize and millet, and one can enjoy it with various traditional vegetables.
As more Kenyans and Ugandans open businesses in the country, Ugali, a popular maize meal in Kenya has become an equally important meal in many homes in South Sudan. It can be eaten with roast meat, fish, chicken or vegetables.
For years, farmers in South Sudan have grown low yielding non-hybrid maize varieties whose seeds are either distributed free of charge by humanitarian organisations or imported from neigbouring countries, sometimes without doing any trials to test their (seed) adaptability to local conditions.
However, this is bound to change with the release of four new hybrid varieties, which were developed by Luka Atwok Opio, a South Sudanese scientist.
Since 2017, Opio has been working on identifying, selecting and carrying out trials of maize hybrid varieties to come up with the most suitable ones for different agro-ecological zones in the country.
He received financial support of $500,000 from Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the Netherlands.
AGRA is a non-governmental organization collaborating with African governments to achieve a green revolution in Africa through different programmes among them improving seed systems by training local breeders and supporting countries to develop seeds locally.
A civil war that has lasted since 2013, South Sudan has remained a food deficit country. By January 2020, the World Food Programme reported that over 7.5 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance.
Opio, worked with the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, to identify first hybrid maize varieties.
“We conducted experiments using proven scientific methods in different places including Yei Research Station, Palotaka Basic Seed Centre, Rajaf, Maridi, Lobone and Torit between 2017 and 2019, with focus on high yield and disease tolerant maize varieties,” said Opio.
The sites were chosen based on their climatic conditions to produce higher yields.
They later narrowed to four varieties with an average yield of between 3.96 tonnes to 4.8 tonnes per hectare, which is much higher compared to the best local non-hybrid cultivar that yields just one tonne per hectare under the same experimental conditions.
The released hybrid varieties – PALOTAKA-2H, PALOTAKA-3H, NAMA-18H and PIITA-6H – are expected to improve yields and food security.
“Maize hybrids have a substantial economic and yield advantage over open pollinated maize varieties,” said Dr Maurice Mogga of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in South Sudan.
“With maize hybrids, farmers have the opportunity to double their yields per unit acreage and increase their incomes,” noted Dr Mogga.
For Opio, who grew up in Pajok village in the Northern Equitoria State, where his parents were smallholder farmers growing maize, sorghum, seseme (simsim), and ground nuts among other indigenous crops, these varieties re a dream come true.
He imagined a time when he would help his family – and by extension, the country – improve food productivity.
From Pajok, Opio joined Comboni Secondary School in Juba, where he learned that there were scientific ways of improving crop productivity, such as using improved seeds, use of good agronomic practices and even use of fertilizers.
“I could always think about my parents back at home, and imagine how happy they would be if their farm productivity was to be doubled,” said the scientist.
This was his motivation as he joined the University of Juba to study agricultural sciences, before going to to Makerere University for a Masters degree in plant breeding. Today, he is pursuing his PhD at the University of Ghana in Accra.
“The selection and trials of these hybrid varieties is therefore one of the biggest achievements in my life,” he told The EastAfrican. “I am sure that farmers will be overjoyed to harvest a double potion or more just by planting the improved hybrid varieties.”
However, conducting the trials was not an easy task for the scientist. After independence in 2011, the country plunged into civil turmoil after President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy Riek Machar and ten others of attempting a coup d’état.
This led to displacements, consigning development to the periphery.
“We have some of the poorest roads on the continent. If it were not for extremely heavy vehicles that came as part of support to this project, we were not going to achieve anything,” said Opio.
But he believes that with peace and stability, constructing road infrastructure is something the government can, and should do with time.
Now that the varieties have been released, the next step is to identify suitable cultivars – which are plants selected for desirable characteristics that are maintained during propagation
“After this, foundation seeds for the four hybrid varieties will now be distributed to seed companies for seed multiplication. Thereafter, farmers will be able to access the certified seeds in the next one or two seasons,” he said.
Foundation seeds are pure seed stocks grown by or under the supervision of a public agency for use in the production of registered and certified seed.
“We continually call on the government to consider investing at least 10 percent of the gross domestic product in agriculture,” he told The EastAfrican. “We cannot always depend on donors to fund our research. We also need cold rooms where we can store germplasm, and we need local financing to support further research activities to enable our country catch up with the rest of the world.”
He believes that this is just but the beginning. “We’ve just released four varieties with our target being high yield. In the near future, we need improved lines for drought tolerant maize, disease resistant varieties, and the same for other crops,” said the scientist.
The new varieties have been received well by seed companies, with Oryem Cosmas P’Lonam, the chief executive of Magwi Seed Company (Masco), which produces seeds for farmers in Magwi County of the Eastern Equatoria State in South Sudan, saying, “This is something we’ve really been waiting for.”
Masco has been producing seed whose parent materials particularly imported from Uganda. “Locally bred seeds are always the best because during the breeding process, trials are usually done locally to identify exact agro-ecological zones that suit them,” said P’Lonam.
“We are happy that the government has release the hybrid varieties,” said Peter Waks from Kamuli Village, Lobone Payam (Administrative division) of Torit State. “We look forward to planting them perhaps during the next planting season,” said the farmer who had taken refuge in Uganda following civil wars, but has returned to continue with his farming activities.
Generally, hybrid seeds are bred by crossing pollen from say, one maize variety with a different one. The resultant offspring comes with what scientists call ‘hybrid vigour,’ meaning it is superior to the parents in terms of yield, size, and even growth rate.
Plant breeders also cross varieties to take advantage of positive traits found in both parents such as early maturing, and sometimes people consider the taste and color.
To have a variety released, several germplasm is usually sourced from particular research institution. The researcher then elects to do trials of the germplasms as it is, or modify them by crossing with different materials. Through observation with focus on the desired traits, the researcher may end up selecting just a few best performing out of say 100 germplasm for further trials. Once the best of the best selections are identified, the researcher then drafts a report which is usually presented to a committee of experts appointed by the Ministry.
The researcher defends his report and if the committee is satisfied, they present it to the minister for endorsement. It is at this point that the foundation seeds are released to seed companied for seed multiplication. Farmers can then start buying the seeds from those companies.
original version of this article was published by The EastAfrican weekly newspaper