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Father Godfrey Nzamujo, founder of the Songhai Centre, Porto Novo, Benin

Father Godfrey Nzamujo, founder and director of the Songhai Centre, Benin

Father Godfrey Nzamujo is the founder and director of the Songhai Centre, a pioneering farm, training and research centre in Porto Novo, Benin. Begun in 1985 on a single hectare of land, the Songhai project has expanded to six sites in Benin and one in Nigeria. With the motto 'Commitment to Excellence', Songhai symbolises Nzamujo's belief that Africa's ecological characteristics are advantages rather than impediments. Father Nzamujo was awarded the Hunger Project's Africa Prize for Leadership in 1993, and is the author of Songhaï: When Africa lifts up its head.

Stirring revolution in African Rice

Consumption of rice in Africa is undergoing a transformation. Ten years ago, rice contributed just one per cent of calorie intake in West Africa; today it contributes ten per cent. From a food eaten only on special occasions, rice has become a daily food for many, far quicker to cook and easier to prepare than many of our traditional staples and popular with the modern, urban households, particularly in big countries like Nigeria.

Currently, around half the rice eaten in West and Central Africa (WCA) is imported, costing over US$1 billion per year. Rice is grown by around 20 million farmers in WCA, but this is mostly subsistence production, and locally grown rice does not compete well with imported rice in the market place. Locally grown rice suffers from inconsistent grain size and sand, which gets into the rice during the drying process. Consumers prefer the high quality of imported Asian rice.

Reversing the downward spiral

African rice production has also been caught in a downward spiral. Producers are mostly poor, unable to access the technology or funds needed to improve their production, and no support is provided by governments, except in a few countries, such as Nigeria. Potential private investors who could fund improvements in quality are not interested, because the quantities sold in the marketplace are so small. Something has to be done. We must increase the production per hectare and develop an attractive, lucrative commodity chain for investors.

Genetic improvement is the most important step. If you look at our landscape we are not like Asia, where there are a lot of swampy areas. If we really want to improve productivity we need to produce rice in the same fields where maize can grow, and that is why we are looking at varieties like the NERICAs - the New Rices for Africa. These can be grown in upland areas, on land owned by poor farmers. The Africa Rice Center (WARDA) gave us some varieties, we tried them on upland fields here in Porto Novo and boom! It was wonderful!

Last year we got three harvests of over four tonnes per hectare and produced more than 1000 tonnes of seed to be distributed to farmers. We achieved that without using any chemical fertiliser. At Songhai we use an integrated system where waste is recycled, including the wastes from our animal production centre. We put between five and ten tonnes of organic fertiliser per hectare on the fields before transplanting the rice crop.

Getting together

Our relationship with WARDA has been like a good marriage. One reason why it has been successful is that their focus was not just on research: they wanted impact. But they needed an organisation to bridge the gap between their researchers and the farmers. Songhai provided that bridge because most of our members are trained agriculturists or trained scientists who are able to understand the language of the WARDA people. At the same time we are a farmers' organisation, so we understand the language of the farmers. WARDA out-sourced the fieldwork to us, and at the same time they improved our capacity through training. It made their life easier, it made our life easier and it became a natural marriage.

At Songhai we train about 300 people a year, and we have been working to improve post-harvest handling. It is just some basic discipline that is needed, making sure that the rice is well dried, sand contamination is avoided, and that it is stored correctly. The rice is also parboiled to strengthen the grains and increase the nutritional content. As a result, it sold very well and the price increased from 200 to more than 300 CFA per kilogram.

Chain reaction

What's more, we have created jobs at every level in the rice commodity chain. The blacksmiths are making the equipment for the parboiling; local women are organising themselves into co-operatives, learning the skills of parboiling. But to make this African rice industry a reality we need to reach a critical mass of farmers and other people who will jump on the rice bandwagon.

Transforming Africa's rice industry will also need investment. From a small oasis of success in Songhai we need to scale it up. We won't succeed just by talking about it: investment, time and energy are needed to multiply the effect. And we need the political will. If the politicians come to our fields here in Porto Novo, in Parakou, Savalou and the big rice fields of Kinwedji, the success will strike an answering chord. If you are not a natural pessimist you will say, "Ah, this is something to be done!" Imagine what will happen when governments and donors say, "This is the pathway I am going to take. I am going to invest the energy and the time and the people and the money so that this becomes possible tomorrow!" If it is going to happen, it is going to come from the heart of people who really believe. And I really believe it is possible.

Date published: May 2007

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Have your say

It really looks very good and promising for Africans to emba... (posted by: Godfrey Ladu)

This really is the right way to go, God is really with you ... (posted by: John Odungide)

kudos to a an achiever. i think africa is rising up to take ... (posted by: duke samuel)

This is definately the way forward. I hope African goverment... (posted by: Patrick Ofori)


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