Grasses that grow wild across Kenya can double yields of maize, Africa's most important grain crop. Trials in which the grasses were grown alongside maize have proved so successful that they are about to be repeated in three other African countries.
The grasses do battle with the stem borer, a caterpillar that decimates maize yields in millions of fields across eastern and southern Africa. When planted around the edges of fields, some spieces attract the moths that lay stem borer eggs, then secrete a gum that kills the caterpillars. They also attract the borer's worst foe, a parasitic wasp.
Other grasses, if planted between rows of maize, keep the moths away by giving off an unpleasant smell. The grasses also fend off a second major threat to maize crops. a weed called Striga that attaches itself to the plants' roots. Between them, Striga and stem borers typically cause a 40 per cent loss of maize.
Scientists at the research station at Mbita Point on the shores of Lake Victoria have tested four of these grass species -- Sudan (Sorghum vulgare), napier (Pennisetum purpureum), silverleaf (Desmodium uncinatum) and molasses (Melinis minutiflora) -- on 150 Kenyan farms. They proved so successful that the British-based Gatsby Charitable Foundation, which funded the research, is extending the programme to Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia.
"These grasses are the same ones that farmers used to grow for fodder," says Zeyaur Khan, the project's coordinator.
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