text size: smaller reset larger

 

 

Eureka for NERICA!

Africa missed out on the Green Revolution, which underpinned the rapid economic growth in Asia, and as demand for rice increased in West Africa imports of Asian rice were necessary to satisfy consumer demand. Since the 1960s, imports have increased eight-fold, costing the region almost US$1 billion a year. But, due to the dedication and perseverance of a team of African scientists over a period of almost twenty years, it is possible that Africa may once again become self-sufficient in rice varieties bred for Africa.

Oryza glaberrima has been grown in West Africa for thousand of years. This single African rice species was domesticated by farmers in the northern Niger valley by Africa's first farmers and has proved itself against the harsh environment of a number of ecosystems, including rainfed upland and lowland areas and even mangrove swamps. For thousands of years, rice sustained the economies of many West African kingdoms and civilizations and rice remains the main staple crop in many parts of the region. For almost all West Africa farmers it is valued, even if grown only as a secondary crop, as a source of income and for consumption during special occasions.

Dr Monty Jones examines rice panicles at WARDA research plot
Dr Monty Jones examines rice panicles at WARDA research plot

The advantage of growing O. glaberrima is that it resists weeds and local pests, but yields are low. Faced with the challenge to improve production, African researchers endeavoured to combine the ruggedness of traditional types of African rice with the high-yielding potential of the Asian species O. sativa. Initial attempts were not successful, due to genetic incompatibility between the two species, but scientific advances in the late 1980s allowed a team led by Dr Monty Jones to use a technique known as 'embryo rescue' to ensure that crosses between the two species would survive and grow to maturity. The process took another five years to perfect but in the mid-1990s, Nerica (New Rice for Africa) was born and the first lines were tested in the research fields of the Africa Rice Center (WARDA) in Côte d'Ivoire.

A bundle of benefits

Nerica is not just one variety; more than 3,000 family lines have been developed, although farmers have currently taken up only about ten upland varieties. These share some common features, which include significantly higher yields compared with both parent varieties: Nerica lines yield around 1.5 to 2.5 tonnes of rice per hectare, compared with an average of only one tonne or less for traditional African varieties. And, with good land preparation and application of fertilisers, yields may be doubled. Tolerance to weeds, pests and diseases has also been retained in the Nerica varieties, and they mature in only half the time (90 days) of traditional varieties so that farmers can grow a second crop, such as beans, which increases soil fertility and provide valuable food during the 'hunger' season. In addition, the nutritional value of Nericas is higher than parent varieties; most rice varieties have a protein content of about 8-10 per cent, whilst Nerica is significantly higher at 10-12 per cent.

After the successful introduction of Nericas into Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea, farmer testing of the varieties has spread throughout much of the upland rice-growing regions of West Africa, and noticeable benefits have already been observed. Guinea, for instance, saved over US$13 million in rice imports in 2003. And, with assistance from the African Rice Initiative established in 2002 under the Nerica consortium, donor efforts have been co-ordinated to allow testing in Central as well as East Africa.

Political support

In Uganda, over 6,000 hectares are now planted to Nericas and 'NARIC 3', is a recent varietal release specifically developed by the Ugandan National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO). The potential for Nericas in Uganda has led Vice-President Professor Gilbert Bukenya to promote growing upland rice as part of a national campaign, launched in January 2004, to fight poverty through farming. Rice is currently Uganda's second or third largest import, which costs the country US$90-110 each year.

Use of novel participatory approaches in the testing and dissemination of Nericas, combined with recent political commitment including endorsement from the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) has contributed to the rapid spread of Nericas across sub-Saharan Africa. By 2007, the African Rice Initiative hopes that US$90 million per year will be saved as a result of increased upland Nerica production and the resulting reduction in imports. Nerica varieties for irrigated and lowland systems should be shortly available also.

By the end of the decade, Africa will largely still not be self-sufficient in rice but it should be making significant progress. And, without the vision and efforts of one West African scientist, Dr Monty Jones and his team of colleagues, Africa would not have been recognised in the 2004 World Food Prize for its contributions towards improved food security.

Date published: July 2004

 

Have your say

 

The New Agriculturist is a WRENmedia production.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.
Accept
Read more