Maize plays a vital role in food security in Africa south of the Sahara, providing an estimated 40-50 percent of the calories consumed by poor populations. However, the crop is also very susceptible to climate-driven shocks, particularly variable rainfall and drought. While drought-tolerant maize varieties have become more widely available in recent years, the adoption of these new varieties depends on farmers’ perceptions of the crop’s benefits – and their willingness to pay for those benefits.
A new paper in World Development examines this issue in the context of Zimbabwe. The study looks at the implicit prices that farmers are willing to pay for drought tolerance compared to other beneficial traits, including yield, cob size, and grain texture.
The study uses a choice experimental framework and covers a random sample of 1,400 rural households from 56 communal farming villages (where land is held under customary tenure) throughout 14 districts of Zimbabwe, for a total of 12,600 observations. The sample districts are distributed throughout the entire country and cover four agro-ecological regions where maize is widely grown.
National maize yields declined significantly from 1996-2001, and over the past two decades have remained at around only 0.8 ton/ha. These low yields are due in part to dry spells and fluctuating rainfall patterns. Thus, increasing the uptake of drought-tolerant maize varieties by rural farming households could be an important channel through which to increase rural populations’ resilience to climate shocks.
The majority of the sample households (77.4 percent) were male-headed; average household head age was around 38 years and average household head education level was around 9 years. Sample households depend on crop and livestock farming for their livelihoods, with three out of four respondents saying their household depends on farming; around 12 percent reported depending on petty trading or other self-owned business. Temporary or permanent employment outside of farming was reported by 10.7 percent of sample households. The average land holding among sample households was around 7 acres, or 2.83 hectares; around 60 percent of household land was allocated to maize.
The study finds that both farmers’ preference for drought tolerance and farmer’s willingness to pay for drought tolerance are generally high. Drought tolerance ranked among the most preferred traits, along with grain yield, cob size, covered cob tip, and semi-flint grain texture. Farmers appear willing to pay a higher premium for drought tolerance than for other benefits – 2.56, 7, 3.2, and 5 times higher (respectively) than for an additional ton of yield per acre, larger cob size, larger grain size, and covered cob tip.
There was some heterogeneity in the study findings, however. Preference for drought tolerance was found to be negatively related to household size; the authors suggest this could be because smaller households in rural Zimbabwe tend to be poorer, and may thus be more risk-averse and less willing to adopt new technologies like drought-tolerant maize. In addition, households whose head is engaged in petty trading are less interested in drought tolerance and more interested in traits that directly impact the marketability of maize, such as grain size or texture. When household heads engage in temporary employment, however, they tend to have a higher preference for drought tolerance than household heads engaged directly in farming. This could be because temporary employment is generally used to supplement households’ farm-based livelihoods; new technologies that improve farming livelihoods could reduce the need to engage in temporary non-farm employment.
The study concludes that in order to scale up the adoption of new maize varieties, including drought-tolerant varieties, seed companies and agricultural extension services need to take into account the traits that farmers look for most when choosing which maize to plant. In this particular study area – Zimbabwe’s community farming region – drought tolerance does indeed seem to be the most preferred trait, particularly among farmers and those engaged in temporary employment to supplement their agricultural income. The authors suggest that marketing campaigns for drought-tolerant maize should target these groups in order to disseminate the new technology more quickly.
By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI
 M. Smale, D. Byerlee, T.S. Jayne. 2011. “Maize revolutions in Sub-Saharan Africa.” A. A. R. D. T. Development Research Group, Trans. Policy research working paper series. Washington DC: The World Bank.