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New rice for African women

Members of a women's farming group in Deve, Benin, check their harvest of NERICA rice (WRENmedia)
Members of a women's farming group in Deve, Benin, check their harvest of NERICA rice

Picture a field of rice: an expanse of bright green plants in flat, water-logged land, the classic image of Asian rice farming. For African rice growers, however, the picture is changing fast. Upland rice varieties, grown on dry land, are expanding across the continent, spearheaded by the NERICAs, new varieties that offer the promise of high yields, short duration and disease resistance. Coordinating the campaign is the African Rice Initiative (ARI), a network hosted by the Africa Rice Center (WARDA). With funding of US$35 million from the African Development Bank, the ARI launched a programme in 2005 that targets a group of farmers already responsible for 80 per cent of rice production in Africa - women.

Toughening up

In some areas of Africa, upland rice is grown by women as a food crop, men tending to grow lowland, irrigated rice for cash. Until recently, nearly all the rice varieties grown in Africa were Asian types (Oryza sativa), which are much higher yielding and have far great consistency in grain quality than indigenous African rice (O. glaberrima). However, they are also vulnerable to diseases, pests, harsh climates and poor soils, making them a difficult crop for African farmers to profit from. The New Rices for Africa (NERICAs), the first of which were released by WARDA in 2000, are crosses from African and Asian parents, successfully combining the hardiness of one with the high yields of the other.

What women want?

Women are responsible for 80 per cent of Africa's rice harvest (WRENmedia)
Women are responsible for 80 per cent of Africa's rice harvest

Working initially in seven countries, ARI is promoting the cultivation of 18 upland NERICA varieties. In the village of Deve in Benin, a group of women farmers has been planting the new varieties for several seasons. Affiwa Kangnivi, chair of the group, is relatively pleased with the results. Maturing in just 90 days, compared to the 130 day local varieties, her group has managed to grow two NERICA crops per year. The plants also produce a lot of tillers, shading out the weeds and reducing the demand on labour. Her preferred variety is NERICA 2, which she says has a high rate of grain filling - meaning less empty husks at harvest time - and good cooking qualities. It also earns 25-50 per cent more per kilogramme at the market.

Affiwa's primary concern, however, is accessing fertiliser. The NERICA breeders claim that their varieties produce 50 per cent more than local varieties under no-fertiliser use, and up to 200 per cent more with fertiliser application. The group was given training in applying basal fertiliser at sowing time but, she says, in subsequent seasons she could not afford to buy fertiliser at the correct time. As a result, she believes, many of the grains were broken during milling, significantly reducing their value. Despite this, she and her group members are keen to continue planting NERICAs, and hope that with the profits from their increased sales, they may be able to afford fertilisers in future.

Food, health and education

Rita Agboh-Noameshie, a researcher with the Africa Rice Center, points to further advantages for women who grow upland NERICAs. Their early maturity increases the likelihood of harvesting a crop when rains are erratic, and reduces the hungry season before harvest, when women struggle to feed their families. NERICAs also have up to 25 per cent more protein than imported rice; women surveyed in northern Benin commented that feeding NERICA rice to sick children improved their recovery. With their reduced labour, short duration and high protein levels, NERICAs are also recommended to HIV/AIDS sufferers.

Overcoming the seed bottleneck

With seed production and distribution systems typically in disarray in much of Africa, scaling up the new varieties is the key challenge for ARI. The programme aims to involve over 33,000 farming families in participatory varietal selection trials. In 2006 the ARI produced around 80 tonnes of NERICA foundation seed, which has been distributed to the national research and extension programmes, community based seed multiplication programmes, NGOs and the private sector across the target countries.

In field plots at the Africa Rice Center, NERICAs are bred by crossing African and Asian rice varieties (WRENmedia)
In field plots at the Africa Rice Center, NERICAs are bred by crossing African and Asian rice varieties

Guinea and Nigeria, the two biggest NERICA growers, each have around 70,000 hectares planted to the new rices; in East Africa, Uganda has around 20,000 hectares. Across Africa, ARI has doubled NERICA cultivation in two years to a total of some 200,000 hectares. The programme is also working with farmers to refine NERICA cultivation, identifying the optimum timing for fertiliser application and weeding, experimenting with sowing depth and developing post-harvest processing.

So far the ARI has focussed on upland rice, but lowland farmers also have cause for optimism. In 2005, six lowland NERICA varieties, with yield potential of up to seven tonnes per hectare and good resistance to disease and insect attack, were released in Mali and Burkina Faso. Given the higher potential of Africa's lowlands, researchers believe their performance may ultimately over-shadow the impressive achievements of their upland cousins.

Date published: March 2007


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