In South Sudan, sorghum is king of crops. Its flour is used to make kisra, a flat bread that is the most important meal for many communities. The flour is also used to make asseeda—a popular South Sudanese porridge.
Sorghum can be grown in a wide range of soils in the country and is resistant and tolerant to salinity and poor soils.
But, coming closely behind sorghum in status is maize—a crop that has gained more prominence with the growth in urbanisation.
Maize is used to prepare dura, which is a mix of cooked maize and millet and can be eaten 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 is 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 for free by humanitarian organisations or imported from neighbouring countries, sometimes without testing their adaptability to local conditions.
This is about to change with the release of four new hybrid varieties, which were developed by Luka Atwok Opio, a South Sudanese scientist.
Since 2017, Mr 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 organisation collaborating with African governments to achieve a green revolution in the continent 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 has seen South Sudan remain food deficit. By January, the World Food Programme reported that over 7.5 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance.
Mr Opio worked with the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security to identify the country’s first hybrid maize varieties.
“We conducted trials in different areas including Yei Research Station, Palotaka Basic Seed Centre, Rajaf, Maridi, Lobone and Torit between 2017 and 2019, with a focus on high yield and tolerant maize varieties,” he said.
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 with the best local non-hybrid cultivar that yields just one tonne per hectare.
The released hybrid varieties—PALOTAKA-2H, PALOTAKA-3H, NAMA-18H and PIITA-6H—are expected to improve yields and food security.
“With maize hybrids, farmers have the opportunity to double their yields per unit acreage and increase their incomes,” said Maurice Mogga of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in South Sudan.
For Mr Opio, who grew up in Pajok village in the Northern Equitoria State, where his parents were small-holder farmers growing maize, sorghum, seseme (simsim), and ground nuts among other indigenous crops, these varieties are a dream come true.
He imagined a time when he would help his family—and by extension the country—improve food productivity.
From Pajok, Mr Opio joined Comboni Secondary School in Juba, where he learnt 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 always thought about my parents back at home and imagined 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 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 one of the biggest achievements in my life,” he told The EastAfrican
“I am sure that farmers will be overjoyed to harvest double their production 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 10 others of attempting a coup.
This led to displacements, consigning development to the periphery.
“We have some of the poorest roads on the continent and were it not for heavy vehicles that came as part of support for this project, we would not have achieved anything,” said Mr Opio.
But he believes that with peace and stability, construction of 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 their desirable characteristics.
“After this, foundation seeds for the four hybrid varieties will be distributed to seed companies for 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 continue to urge the government to consider investing at least 10 per cent of the gross domestic product in agriculture,” he told The EastAfrican.
“We can’t 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 to catch up with the rest of the world.”
“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 well received 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 seeds whose parent materials are 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 Mr P'Lonam.
“We are happy that the government has released 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 war, but has returned to continue with his farming activities.