Cotonou, Benin — Leading policy analysts and researchers attending the Africa Rice Congress—a groundbreaking meeting taking place in Tanzania to chart the way forward for rice research and development in sub-Saharan Africa—have emphasized that to bring about a rice-based Green Revolution in the region, equal attention should be urgently given to four areas: policy; capacity building; technology development and transfer; and infrastructure.
Explaining the important lessons that Africa can draw from the Asian Green Revolution, World Food Prize Laureate Dr G S Khush gave the example of India and said that the development of high-yielding varieties could not have alone boosted India’s rice production in the 1960s that led to its Green Revolution.
“It was a combination of success factors that included the Government’s decision to support its rice farmers by providing fertilizer subsidy, price support, a ready market, in addition to facilities such as irrigation, roads, and machinery.”
The Congress participants urged African governments to support their rice farmers, instead of becoming increasingly dependant on external supply for rice. Sub-Saharan Africa’s rice imports cover about 40-45% of its total rice supply and represent a third of worldwide imports.
Prof. E Tollens, an expert in agricultural policy research, highlighted that the world rice stocks were at present at their lowest level (about 100 million tonnes) of which China accounts for 58%. He said that one positive sign was that locally produced rice was becoming more competitive as the international rice prices have been rising since 2002.
The need to strengthen the capacity of human resources along the rice research and development continuum was underscored throughout the Congress meetings. The capacity of the whole range of rice stakeholders—from rice researchers to extension workers, farmers and processors—need to be strengthened to improve the rice sector in African countries.
Participants thanked the Rockefeller Foundation for funding the capacity building project for breeding and biotechnology being conducted in Eastern Africa. They strongly recommended that such projects be also made available in West Africa. Dr S McCouch from Cornell University who has been one of the foremost champions of capacity building of African researchers suggested that a coordinated proposal for capacity building for rice breeding and biotechnology could be submitted for financial support.
Dr P Seck, Director General of ISRA, in Senegal and the Director General Designate of WARDA, said, ”Capacity building of Africans is essential. But, all our efforts will fail if we cannot give to our trained personnel the right working conditions and incentives in order to prevent the brain drain.”
Technology Development and Dissemination
The Congress offered a great opportunity to the national and international rice researchers to plan for the development of improved rice varieties for the future, especially the next generation of New Rice for Africa (NERICAs). Both Upland and Lowland NERICAs are making a big difference in many African countries.
NERICA refers to the successful crossing by researchers from the Africa Rice Center (WARDA)of the two species of cultivated rice to produce plants (known as interspecifics) that outperform both parents, with an emphasis on high yields from the Asian parent and the ability to thrive in harsh environments from the African parent.
The main focus on the next generation NERICAs will be to increase their resistance to environmental stresses, particularly drought, as well as diseases and pests, while increasing their yield potential and nutrient and water use efficiency, using advanced scientific tools.
Dr McCouch pointed out that rice researchers are especially fortunate, because rice is the first crop, whose genome has been fully sequenced and since this achievement was made through public-funded research, this priceless genomic information is in the public domain, unlike that for wheat or maize.
“Today rice researchers have new opportunities using the tools of modern genetics,” Dr McCouch said. African rice research will also benefit greatly from the new collaboration between WARDA and IRRI as well as from the collaboration with African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF).
A key success factor of the NERICAs was the unlocking of the genes from the African cultivated rice species O. glaberrima, accessions of which were collected and conserved in the WARDA genebank. Similarly wild and weedy rice species harbor many genes capable of enhancing the performance of the Asian rice. The value of collecting and conserving genetic resources of all these rice species was emphasized by the Congress.
The participants stressed that varieties should be considered as part of an integrated crop management system and that biotechnology and ecotechnology should be given equal priority.
Innovative and appropriate water management systems, including the “Sawah” system, should be explored to maximize the high potential of Africa’s lowlands. “However, priority should be given to improve existing crop and water management systems, before introducing new systems from outside,” said Dr O Niangado, Delegate from Syngenta Foundation.
It was acknowledged that Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and Natural Resource Management (NRM) technologies are more difficult and expensive to disseminate to farmers. Given that the Participatory Varietal Selection (PVS) approach had been highly successful for NERICA dissemination, participants recommended that it would be worthwhile to extrapolate this approach for IPM and NRM technologies,
“There cannot be large-scale rice production without the use of agricultural machinery,” said Dr Khush. The participants endorsed the view that appropriate, low-cost small machinery for rice cultivation has to be developed or introduced and adapted to African conditions, such as the ASI rice thresher, developed through partnership between international (WARDA, IRRI), national (ISRA and SAED) and NGOs and the private sector in Senegal.
Referring to the policy studies carried out by the Africa Rice Center (WARDA) on the Nigeria rice sector, where it was found that the relatively poor quality of Nigerian rice is the primary constraint to further development of the sector, Prof. Tollens said, “It is important to recognize that milling, cleaning, and branding are important for the marketing of the local rice. Otherwise, consumers will continue to view local rice as an inferior product, and it will be of no use if we continue to increase rice production.”
Go All the Way
The essence of the Congress deliberations was well captured by Dr T Berhe from Sasakawa Global 2000. “Go all the way from rice research to dissemination, production and consumption, following the value chain, and put equal importance on all the stages,” he said.