Come rain or shine

Stress-tolerant maize helps smallholder farmers cope with climate risks

“You’ve probably never heard of CGIAR, but they are essential to feeding our future.” In a 2019 blog discussing the essential role the CGIAR System plays in feeding the world, Bill Gates highlighted the efforts of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) to develop and spread the use of drought-tolerant and disease-resistant improved maize varieties, which he described as “a leading example of the amazing work the CGIAR System does to help smallholder farmers.”

These varieties are more necessary than ever before. Climate change is affecting food production in every corner of the globe and making it harder to meet rising global food demand.

“We will need CGIAR’s research to help supply farmers with a steady stream of climate-smart crop varieties,” said Gates, pointing to drought-tolerant maize as an example of an innovation helping smallholder farmers adapt to climate change.

Farmers are struggling to cope with increasing climate risks, such as more frequent and extreme droughts and flooding, and severe pest and disease outbreaks among crops and livestock. Rainfed, smallholder farming families in sub-Saharan Africa are disproportionately affected, as their livelihoods depend on unpredictable rainfall patterns. It is estimated that by 2030 drought and rising temperatures could render 40% of the continent’s maize-growing areas unsuitable for current varieties.

A farmer shows her harvest of stress-tolerant maize in rural Zimbabwe.

In Zimbabwe, farmers in drought-stricken areas using drought-tolerant maize were able to harvest up to 600 kilograms more maize per hectare than those using conventional varieties

More than 200 million households in sub-Saharan Africa depend on maize for their livelihoods. However, maize productivity on the continent is currently the lowest in the world, and as weather patterns become more erratic, farmers are at greater risk of having smaller maize harvests — or sometimes no harvest at all.

In response to this challenge, CIMMYT has partnered with the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and national partners in 12 sub-Saharan African countries under the Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa (STMA) project to develop over 200 new maize varieties capable of withstanding drought conditions. These varieties are expected to give farmers 25-30% greater yields under drought stress at the flowering stage, as well as help them fight devastating maize diseases.

So far, more than five million farmers across the region are benefitting from CGIAR-derived stress-tolerant maize varieties.

In Zimbabwe, for example, farmers in drought-stricken areas using drought-tolerant maize were able to harvest up to 600 kilograms more maize per hectare than those using conventional varieties. The additional harvest was enough to feed a family of six for nine months. For farming families who chose to sell their harvests, it was worth US$240 in extra income, giving them much-needed cash to send their children to school and meet other household needs.

Under the STMA project and the CGIAR Research Program on Maize (MAIZE), CIMMYT and IITA are also supporting local and regional seed companies to produce and deploy quality seed of the stress-tolerant maize cultivars on a large scale.

Partners and funders

The STMA project is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID. The CGIAR Research Program on Maize (MAIZE) receives Windows 1 & 2 support from the governments of Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, France, India, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the World Bank.

© 2020 International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
We would like to thank all funders who supported this research through their contributions to the CGIAR Trust Fund.

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Rodrigo Ordóñez, Geneviève Renard
Project coordination
Alison Doody, Emma Orchardson
Art directors
Clyde R. Beaver III, Alfonso Cortés, Nancy Valtierra
Layout and design
Nancy Valtierra
Web development
Ricardo López
Graphics and illustrations
Ángel Eduardo Aguilar, Clyde R. Beaver III, Alfonso Cortés, Marcelo Ortiz, Eliot Sánchez,
Nancy Valtierra
Writers and editors
Ricardo Curiel, Leslie Domínguez, Mary Donovan, Alison Doody, Jennifer Johnson, G. Michael Listman, Marcia MacNeil, Marta Millere, Matthew O’Leary, Emma Orchardson, Samuel Storr
Ricardo Ampudia, Lone Badstue, Hans Braun, Johanna Braun, José Juan Caballero Flores, Denise Costich, Susanne Dreisigacker, Andrea Gardeazabal Monsalue, Elias Garcia, Bram Govaerts, Filippo Guzzon, Jesús Herrera, M.L. Jat, Victor Kommerell, Timothy J. Krupnik, Jean-Flavien Le Besque, Joshua Masinde, Terence Molnar, Dina Najjar, Natalia Palacios, Thomas Payne, Kevin Pixley, B.M. Prasanna, Michael Quinn, Rajiv Kumar Sharma, H.S. Sidhu, José Luis Torres, Martha Wilcox, MAIZE Independent Steering Committee (ISC), WHEAT Independent Steering Committee (ISC)
Alfonso Cortés, Georg Goergen/IITA, Uttam Kumar, Peter Lowe, Johnson Siamachira, Love Kumar Singh/BISA, Sam Storr, CIMMYT Archives
Correct citation
CIMMYT. 2020. Seeds of change. CIMMYT Annual Report 2019. CDMX, Mexico: CIMMYT.
AGROVOC descriptors:
Maize; Wheat; Plant breeding; Genetic resources; Innovation adoption; Plant biotechnology; Seed production; Food security; Sustainability; Research policies; Economic analysis; Cropping systems; Agricultural research; Organization of research; Developing countries. Additional Keywords: CIMMYT. AGRIS category codes: A50 Agricultural Research; A01 Agriculture– General Aspects. Dewey decimal classification: 630

© International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), 2020. All rights reserved. The designations employed in the presentation of materials in this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of CIMMYT or its contributory organizations concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city, or area, or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. CIMMYT encourages fair use of this material. Proper citation is requested.


Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research
Colombian Agricultural Research Corporation (Corporación Colombiana de Investigación Agropecuaria)
Agricultural Transformation Agency
Borlaug Institute in South Asia
Breeding Advanced Programming Interface
CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security
International Center for Tropical Agriculture
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
CGIAR Research Program
Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia
Central Soil Salinity Research Institute
Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research
CGIAR Excellence in Breeding Platform
Farm Mechanization and Conservation Agriculture for Sustainable Intensification
Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations
Indian Council of Agricultural Research
International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas
International Food Policy Research Institute
International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis
International Institute for Tropical Agriculture
Mexico's National Forestry, Crops and Livestock Research Institute (Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales, Agrícolas y Pecuarias)
International Rice Research Institute
CGIAR Research Program on Maize
Middle East and North Africa
Millennium Development Goals
Open Data Kit
Open-pollinated variety
Polyethylene terephthalate
CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets
Research and Development
Mexico's Secretariat of Agriculture and Rural Development (Secretaría de Agricultura y Desarrollo Rural)
Sustainable Development Goals
Sustainable Development Solutions Network
Straw Management System
Stress Tolerant Maize for Africa
Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics
United Nations
United States Agency for International Development
CGIAR Research Program on Wheat

Sustainable Development Goals

On September 24, 2013, the newly formed United Nations (UN) High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development held its first meeting. At the Rio+20 Conference, Member States also agreed to launch a process to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were to build upon the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were established in 2000 and expired in 2015.

Of the 17 individual goals, 10 relate directly to CGIAR activities and to CIMMYT’s mandate. The SDGs have set the pathway for the next 15 years of agricultural, social, and economic development. Likewise, CGIAR has transformed its approach to ensure that its work aligns with the ambitious goals.

CIMMYT, through its research for development activities, is working toward a world free of poverty, hunger, and environmental degradation. CIMMYT and CGIAR efforts help bring the world closer to reaching the goals, such as the empowerment of women, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and the improvement of health and nutrition for the world’s poorest people.

CIMMYT’s work contributes to the following SDGs:


CIMMYT — the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center — is the global leader in publicly-funded maize and wheat research and related farming systems. Headquartered near Mexico City, CIMMYT works with hundreds of partners throughout the developing world to sustainably increase the productivity of maize and wheat cropping systems, thus improving global food security and reducing poverty. CIMMYT is a member of the CGIAR System and leads the CGIAR Research Programs on Maize and Wheat and the Excellence in Breeding Platform. The Center receives support from national governments, foundations, development banks and other public and private agencies.

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