WEMA project shrouded in secrecy: open letter to African governments to be accountable to farmers, civil society

by African Centre for Biodiversity | 7 Sep 2017

The Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project promises to develop drought tolerance in maize for the benefit of small holder farmers, but is really a project designed to facilitate the spread of hybrid and genetically modified (GM) maize varieties on the continent. 

WEMA involves five African countries: Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. It works through the National Agricultural Research (NAR) agencies of these countries, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and Monsanto. The project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gate Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.


There is a great deal of secrecy that surrounds the WEMA project. The AATF (the so-called ‘not for profit’ organisation that coordinates WEMA) exercises extremely tight control over any information related to WEMA and has prevented researchers from speaking to WEMA partners, including the NARs. Information relating to performance and quality control is notably absent from the WEMA website.

The NARs are public research institutions and are accountable to the public, especially in regard to the use of public goods under their control, such as germplasm, institutional resources and capacities. They are under constitutional and legal obligation to act in the interest of farmers and citizens in their respective countries and to make information available to the public. They are also obliged to ensure that their research efforts are not undermined by the stranglehold of dominant technological platforms based on patented innovations, seed traits and agrochemicals.

We call upon the governments of Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Tanzania and Mozambique to make the following information available:

1. Since the WEMA project consists of ‘elite maize germplasm lines’ contributed by its partners (Monsanto, CIMMYT and the NARs in each of the WEMA countries), we would like to know what inbred lines were developed from the germplasm into which Monsanto’s drought tolerant transgene MON 87460 was introgressed. Please describe the drought tolerant and other agronomic characteristics of such inbred lines.

2. Specify the WEMA conventional seed registered in the five WEMA countries, and particularly in relation to these, outline which ones are currently in production.

3. State whether farm input subsidy programmes will be directed towards WEMA maize (both GM and non GM varieties).

4. Explain the relationships between the varieties on the Variety Release Catalogues in the five countries and the plans for certification and roll out of these varieties.

5. Explain the status of plant variety protection of the WEMA seeds in the five countries, for both GM and non-GM. In this regard, provide full details of the persons (natural or juristic) who have been awarded plant breeders’ rights over such varieties.

6 Explain the licensing arrangements in place with regard to producing certified conventional and GM WEMA seeds in the five countries (specify the role of all institutions involved).

7. Which private seed companies are involved in both conventional and GM hybrid seed production? In this regard, please provide:

• Name of the seed companies;
• Nature of the licensing agreement (exclusive or non-exclusive and for which duration – only distribution, or bulking + distribution);
• Details of which varieties they are tasked with, for both conventional and GM;
• Sufficient detail about the exact agroecological zones where the conventional hybrids have been trialled in the five countries (names of research stations and type of agroecological zones)
• Evidence of the yield (tonnage of maize per kilo of seed) obtained for the conventional and GM hybrids. (We are interested not only in yields obtained in the research stations but also in fields managed by farmers.)
• Explanation of how the ‘royalty free’ component of the project works, especially in relation to the offpatent MON 810, DT trait, other Bt and the herbicide tolerant traits?


National Agriculture Research Agencies in Kenya, South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda
Murenga Mwimali – [email protected]
Dr Kingstone Mashingaidze – [email protected]; [email protected]
Pedro Fato – [email protected]; [email protected]
Roseiro Moreira – [email protected]; [email protected]
Dr Alois Kullaya – [email protected]
Dr Justine Ringo – [email protected]

Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH)
Director General – [email protected]

National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI)
Dr Godfrey Asea, Director – [email protected]; [email protected]

African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF)
Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project coordinator Sylvester Oikeh – [email protected]

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMYYT)
Dr Prasana and Mr Tsedeke Abate – [email protected]
Stephen Mugo – [email protected]

Gates Foundation
[email protected]

We, the undersigned civil society organisations from Africa and around the world are committed to the transformation of our current food and agriculture systems towards agroecology, built upon the imperatives of food sovereignty. We vehemently contest the hegemony of large-scale commercial farming and corporate agribusiness, which are deepening structural inequalities and environmental damage and eroding farmers’ sovereignty. We resist corporate-constructed seed systems that oblige farmers to use patented seed and seed protected by plant variety protection laws and that criminalise farmers’ historical rights to save, use, exchange and sell all farm-saved seed under their control. We support small producers who are building diverse, resilient, autonomous, and socially just food systems.

We readily acknowledge that climate change is an urgent challenge facing farmers in Africa, who need real solutions. Hence, we must question the WEMA project. Although this project promises to develop drought tolerance in maize, to assist a continent plagued by water stress, we are extremely concerned that the project is really designed to facilitate the adoption of hybrid and genetically modified (GM) maize varieties, and in so doing to facilitate a seed industry in Africa that is driven by the private sector.

The objective of the WEMA project is to produce drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize varieties, both conventional and GM. According to its proponents, these varieties “will provide valuable economic, agronomic and environmental benefits to millions of farmers by helping them produce more reliable harvests under moderate drought conditions and better grain quality due to reduced insect damage. This will help farmers harvest enough to feed their families, a surplus which they can sell to increase their incomes, and help strengthen local communities and countries.” Indeed, field trials involving Monsanto’s Bt and drought tolerant maize varieties proliferate in these five countries. 

However, we vehemently dispute the project’s and Monsanto’s claims of drought tolerance, since a single gene (cspB) does not confer efficacious drought tolerance. WEMA and its proponents appear to be disingenuously propagating the myth that GM drought tolerant maize will assist smallholder farmers in Africa cope with water stressed conditions, and, in so doing, are deliberately misleading farmers into believing that this drought tolerant GM maize is a “climate smart solution”. The applicability of genetic engineering to drought tolerance is limited, as it can only manipulate a few genes at a time, while many genes control drought tolerance in plants. Moreover, droughts vary in severity and timing, while other factors, such as soil quality, affect the ability of crops to withstand drought. These complications make it unlikely that any single approach or gene used to make a GM crop will be useful in all, or even most, types of drought.

In reality, the project is promoting Monsanto’s Bt maize MON 810 in Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique and Tanzania under the alluring disguise of water efficiency, whereas this trait has failed dramatically and dismally in South Africa, due to insect resistance. The WEMA project has already strong-armed the governments of Tanzania and Mozambique into amending biosafety and seed laws, in order to pave the way for the eventual rollout of the GM drought tolerant maize in those countries. In Kenya, the import ban on GMOs is coming under increasing pressure from the WEMA project and in Uganda pressure is being exerted on parliamentarians to pass a permissive biosafety bill. 

In South Africa, the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) has lodged an appeal to the High Court of South Africa to overturn decisions of the GMO authority, the GMO Appeal Board and the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to commercialise Monsanto’s genetically modified drought tolerant maize seed. More than 25,000 concerned citizens have signed petitions and submitted objections in support, yet the South African government ignores the pleas of its people. 

This GM maize push will be hugely strengthened in light of the fact that South Africa’s Competition Commission, as well as COMESA, has approved the merger between Bayer and Monsanto. This will give the merged entity control of 30% of the world’s commercial seed market and 25% of the world’s commercial pesticide and herbicide (agrochemical) markets. The likely consequences of such a behemoth yielding enormous power and control in the region are that good governance and biosafety safeguards will be sacrificed at the altar of profits, power and myth making.

Sign the petition here:

Author: African Centre for Biodiversity
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