Smallholder farmers in Mozambique are resisting experts' efforts to get them to adopt hybrid varieties of maize, the main staple food, mainly because if the rains fail, hybrid maize crops are wiped out, they say.
A study by scientists from the Kenya Agricultural Research Centre shows that under favourable conditions, and with proper use of fertiliser and pesticides, planting hybrid seeds yields more than farm-saved seeds. But Mozambican farmers say unpredictable rains and lack of farm inputs can wipe out this advantage.
Sofrimento Rodrigues, a young farmer in Boane district in Southern Maputo, said planting hybrid maize "is not always worth it."
"It means you must have sufficient farm inputs, but above all you will need sufficient rainfall - which is not guaranteed in many parts of this country," he said.
Joaquim Felizardo, another smallholder farmer in the same area, said that his preference for local traditional maize varieties is based on their taste, resilience to tough climate conditions and the ability of farmers to generate their own seed, rather than having to buy it each season.
A 2012 survey by the International Fertiliser Development Centre shows that adoption of hybrid maize seed in Mozambique is very limited, with research scientists estimating the total maize acreage under hybrid varieties to be less than four percent.
Among Mozambique's neighbours, hybrid maize accounts for over 60 percent of the acreage in Zimbabwe, over 50 percent in Malawi and over 80 percent in South Africa, said Pedro Fato, a researcher and a maize breeder at the Instituto de Investigação Agrária de Moçambique (IIAM), (Mozambique Agricultural Research Institute).
Maize experts want the government to back a campaign to encourage farmers to take up both hybrid and improved varieties of traditional maize, arguing that this would increase yields and improve the country's food security.
Currently, Mozambique imports over 42,000 tonnes of maize a year from South Africa, according to statics from the Ministry of Agriculture.
Mozambique's farmers do have some history of adopting new, improved varieties of staple crops.
THE CASSAVA SWITCH
"Four years ago, the government put up a strong campaign to encourage farmers to take up improved cassava varieties, because the crop is climate resilient, it can be used as food, and it is a commercial crop. As a result, cassava farming is a booming business in many parts of the country," said Fato.
As well as providing food for thousands of households, cassava, which is the second staple after maize in Mozambique, has been taken up by the brewer SABMiller Africa, which uses the starch to brew 'Impala', the world's second biggest selling commercial cassava beer.
With support from the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the IIAM has developed and released a number of hybrid maize varieties that are specific to Mozambique, and has improved other non-hybrid varieties which it believes will be accepted by smallholder farmers.
According to Joe DeVries, director of AGRA's Programme for Africa's Seed System, the division of Mozambique between highland and lowland regions means different seeds are needed for different locations, and seeds from countries with different soil and weather conditions cannot easily be imported.
According to José Ricardo, another Mozambican maize breeder, getting small-scale farmers to begin using hybrid maize likely will take a big push by government extension agents.
RESISTANCE IN KENYA TOO
Mozambique's small-scale farmers are not the only ones in Africa to have shown resistance to trading in traditional maize varieties for hybrid varieties bought from seed companies.
Kenya is known for its high rate of hybrid maize adoption, which started in the 1960s through the active work of agricultural extension officers at the district and even village level.
But a share of Kenyan small-scale farmers, particularly in the main maize-producing zone in western Kenya, have held onto traditional maize varieties for the same reasons.
Rose Amianda, a farmer from Essong'olo village in western Kenya, said hybrid maize varieties are very good because of their high productivity. But they can only produce when everything is done correctly, and with the assurance of sufficient rainfall - something she has no control over.
"The non-hybridised seeds are our lifeline. When we have no money to buy enough farm inputs, we go for our local seeds," she said.
"With the unstable rainfall conditions nowadays I have witnessed people plant hybrid seeds and lose everything because of insufficient rainfall," said the mother of five. "But with the local seeds, though poor yielding, there is no way one can get zero."
AGRA's DeVries, however, said persuading small-scale farmers in Mozambique to adopt hybrid maize will take building up the systems to deliver the seed, fertiliser and other inputs needed to grow the crops, as has already happened in Kenya and some other African countries.
"There is a need to build up the distribution system with more agro-dealers at the village and rural town levels in Mozambique in order to improve the uptake of hybrid maize varieties to boost food production," he said.
Fato said he is confident making the switch will pay off for farmers.
"I understand why the farmers are so adamant (about sticking to traditional varieties), but I believe there is a need to build their capacities so that they can understand that planting the right seed at the right time, and using the correct farm inputs, is the only way to improve food security at household and national levels," he said.
Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance journalist specializing in agricultural and environmental reporting. He can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org