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Africa: Rice for the Future
Feb 4, 2004 (040204)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
Only two decades ago, rice was considered a luxury food in West
Africa, comments Dr. Kanayo Nwanze of the West African Rice
Development Association (WARDA). Now it is a staple, accounting for
more than 25% of cereal consumption. Import growth has consistently
outpaced growth in production. But new rice varieties developed
by WARDA researchers give hope that Africa could rapidly increase
This could save African countries millions in import costs.
Although Nigeria produces about 80% of its rapidly rising rice
consumption, imports are still growing faster than production, and
cost some $300 million a year. Other countries in West Africa and
around the continent also rely heavily on imports,
This issue of AfricaFocus Bulletin contains an article from Africa
Recovery on new varieties, developed by cross-breeding Asian and
African rices. The NERICA (New Rice for Africa) varieties preserve
adaptability to African conditions while increasing yields and not
requiring large new inputs of fertilizer or pesticide. The research
program, initiated by Sierra Leonean scientist Monty Jones, and
building on cooperation with both African and Asian research
institutes, is considered a model of successful South-South
For much additional background information, see WARDA's web site at
http://www.warda.org. Other useful sources are listed at the end of
the article. The reposted article appeared in the issue of Africa
Recovery (http://www.africarecovery.org) for January 2004.
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++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++
From Africa Recovery, Vol.17 #4 (January 2004)
Farmers embrace African 'miracle' rice
High-yielding 'Nerica' varieties to combat hunger and rural poverty
By Ernest Harsch
[This material may be freely reproduced, with attribution to
"Africa Recovery, United Nations". We would appreciate a copy of
Africa Recovery Room S-955
United Nations New York, NY 10017 USA
Tel: (212) 963-6857 Fax: (212) 963-4556
When drought came two years ago to Zaguiguia, in western Cote
d'Ivoire, only one variety of rice grew well, the New Rice for
Africa (Nerica). The next season all the farmers in the region
wanted Nerica seeds, but not enough were available, says Albertine
Kpassa, a local farmer. In Saioua, in the central part of the
country, another woman farmer, Elise Digbeu Ori, prefers Nerica
because it matures early, bringing in quick income. "That means a
lot," she says, "because I have six children, and all are in
In the neighbouring country of Guinea, where the first Nerica
varieties were introduced in 1997, Mamady Douno cultivates a rice
field in Maferenya. "Since I started to grow this rice, I no longer
buy rice on the market," the father of 10 told a local reporter.
"With Nerica, I can feed my family, pay my kids' school fees and be
sure of having food all year."
On a continent where the struggle to grow enough food is often a
challenge and a staggering one-third of the population is
undernourished, farmers in nearly a dozen countries in West and
Central Africa are now achieving bountiful rice harvests. They are
growing not only enough to feed their families, but also sizeable
surpluses to sell in the markets.
Nerica - originally developed by scientists of the West Africa Rice
Development Association (WARDA), an intergovernmental rice research
centre - is a cross between an ancient, hardy African rice variety
and a high-yielding Asian variety. It combines features of both:
resistance to drought and pests, higher yields even with little
irrigation or fertilizer, and more protein content than other types
Quite simply, "It is a miracle crop," WARDA Director-General Kanayo
Nwanze told Africa Recovery. He was interviewed during the Third
Tokyo International Conference on African Development (29
September-1 October), at which Nerica featured prominently.
On the NEPAD 'fast track'
For West Africa, where rice is a staple food, the implications of
greater local production are enormous. To meet consumption needs,
the region currently must import about 3.5 mn tonnes of rice a
year, at a cost of nearly $1 bn. Greater domestic production could
save African countries scarce foreign exchange. This year, Guinea
alone may save about $13 mn.
But, as Mr. Nwanze pointed out during a visit to Nigeria, the
widespread adoption of Nerica will mean more than just increased
rice production and reduced imports. "It will mean more food on
each household's table and more money in the farmers' pockets. This
will in turn contribute to food security and poverty reduction."
Nerica's potential has been recognized by the promoters of the New
Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), the broad development
plan adopted by the continent's leaders in 2001. The NEPAD Steering
Committee has identified Nerica as one of the continent's "best
practices" and has endorsed the goal of expanding its use in West
and Central Africa and extending it to East and Southern Africa as
well, as part of a wider effort to boost agricultural production
and food security. Nerica, says Prof. Richard Mkandawire, NEPAD's
agriculture adviser, can help "fast track the process of
eliminating hunger and famine in the African continent."
Best of both worlds
Thanks to the groundbreaking work of Mr. Monty Jones, a scientist
from Sierra Leone who found innovative ways to crossbreed standard
African and Asian rice varieties, WARDA - also known as the African
Rice Centre - was able to develop this new type of rice (see box
below). When Nerica was first tested in research fields in Cote
d'Ivoire in 1994-95, Mr. Nwanze explains, WARDA discovered that the
new variety successfully "combined the best of the Asian rice with
the best of the African rice."
Nerica is not just one variety, Mr. Nwanze points out. There are
actually about 3,000 different Nerica varieties, although farmers
currently are using only about 10 of them. The preferred varieties
share some common features.
Reflecting the characteristics of African rice varieties that have
evolved over millennia in the continent's difficult environmental
conditions, Nerica is very hardy, resistant to stresses such as
drought, common rice diseases and pests. The varieties of Nerica
now in use are most suited to West Africa's dry "uplands," which
are primarily rain-fed and far from lowland river valleys or other
easily accessible sources of irrigation. Instead of trying to
modify the environment with irrigation and fertilizer to meet the
needs of high-yielding Asian rices, says Mr. Nwanze, "Our approach
was to provide technologies that were adapted to the environment."
(Some new Nerica varieties, suited to moister lowland river
valleys, are also currently being tested in Burkina Faso.)
Unlike traditional African rice, but similar to the Asian
varieties, Nerica produces significantly bigger harvests. In fact,
it yields more than either of the two parent varieties. Each
panicle (branch cluster) of the African rice has about 100 grains.
Each panicle of the Asian variety has 250. But Nerica's panicles
hold an average of 400 grains. That means that even without inputs,
Nerica can yield 1.5 to 2.5 tonnes of rice per hectare, compared
with an average of 1 tonne or less for traditional varieties. In
fields in Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire, even very modest applications
of fertilizer have boosted the output to 3.5 tonnes per hectare.
Each grain of Nerica rice also has more protein than either of the
parents. While the old varieties have a protein content of about
8-10 per cent, Nerica can reach 10-12 per cent.
Nerica matures considerably faster. From planting to harvest
generally takes 90-100 days, compared with 120-140 days for upland
Asian rice varieties used in West Africa. That not only allows
farmers to earn money sooner from their market sales, but also to
use the time saved to plant other crops.
In its early stages, Nerica grows profusely, close to the ground,
like the indigenous African varieties. Known as tillering, this
process enables Nerica to successfully crowd out weed development.
A boon to women
Previously, notes Mr. Nwanze, there was very little research into
improving upland rices. "People said they were very marginal, very
unproductive, so why waste time trying to develop technologies for
them" But with about 70 per cent of West Africa's 20 million rice
farmers growing upland rice - and a majority of them women - WARDA
decided that it was vital to focus on this "particular sector of
society that was neglected, women farmers, small-scale poor
In Guinea, Nerica has been especially popular with women farmers,
who have seen significant increases in their rice harvests and
incomes. The government's national coordination office for Nerica
encourages women to establish producer unions to help disseminate
the new variety, provide training and manage seed stocks.
Beyond its high output, Nerica is also valued by women for several
other features. The fact that it matures more quickly than standard
rice varieties permits the women's associations to cultivate other
crops. In a number of rural communities in Guinea they are planting
niébé, a variety of bean that grows within two months and restores
nutrients to fields cultivated with Nerica.
Nerica's ability to reduce weed growth, notes Mr. Nwanze, is also
"very important to women farmers, because out of their total labour
input into rice production, weeding took about 40-60 per cent" of
their rice cultivation efforts. "Now you can see that women spend
less time weeding."
Beyond the scientific innovations that produced Nerica, WARDA has
also been experimenting with new ways of popularizing and
disseminating the crop - through the active engagement of farmers
themselves. This has meant breaking with the standard, top-down
practices of agricultural extension services in Africa, which often
simply tell farmers which crops and varieties they should adopt.
In 1996, WARDA decided that it would be best if farmers drew their
own conclusions about Nerica by comparing it directly with other
varieties, through a three-year process known as "participatory
varietal selection." During the first year, WARDA and national
extension agency staff establish a "rice garden" in a target
village, often in the field of a leading farmer. The garden
includes many different kinds of rice: Nerica, improved Asian
varieties, indigenous African varieties and others that have been
popular locally or regionally. Local farmers are encouraged to
visit the field and monitor the growth of the different varieties.
At the end of the season, farmers are then asked to select five
varieties and are given seeds for use in their own fields the next
year. When that harvest comes in, they are asked to narrow the
selection down to three. But this time, Mr. Nwanze explains, "we
tell them that if they are really interested, they'll have to buy
the seed. That's the test. If a farmer is willing to pay for seed,
it's an indication of interest."
WARDA discovered that as farmers grew the different varieties in
their own fields, they came to appreciate Nerica's particular
qualities. They also helped spread the word among other farmers.
"This was a process in which farmers were not only in the driver's
seat, telling us what they preferred about the varieties," observes
Mr. Nwanze. "But they also became extension agents themselves -
their neighbours and relations came to ask for seeds."
According to Mr. Gordon Conway, president of the US-based
Rockefeller Foundation, which has helped fund WARDA's work on
Nerica, standard top-down extension approaches are inappropriate in
Africa because of the continent's great ecological diversity.
WARDA, he says, "has brilliantly combined the high science of
biotechnology with an approach that creates a central role for
Based on its experiences in Guinea and western Côte d'Ivoire, WARDA
then took this participatory approach a step further, by promoting
the establishment of community-based seed systems. Traditionally,
farmers often save seeds from their harvest to grow next year's
crop, but mainly for their own fields. Under the new system
(adapted from a method developed in Senegal ), farmers who are
interested in becoming specialized seed producers are trained how
to select the best panicles for seed stocks and how to prepare,
store and maintain the seeds. These farmers can then earn
additional income by selling the seeds to other farmers - and in
the process further expand and speed the dissemination of Nerica
African Rice Initiative
With the goal of spreading Nerica's initial successes to other
countries, WARDA and its partners decided in March 2002 to launch
the African Rice Initiative. Nerica was already being adopted in
several other countries, but the initiative sought to make the
process more systematic, coordinate the efforts of an increasing
number of donors and reach countries beyond WARDA's 17 member
states in West Africa.
By mid-2003, one or more Nerica varieties had been released in 10
West African countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, Gambia,
Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Togo). In Central
Africa, Gabon's extension service has begun to promote Nerica,
while Uganda, in East Africa, has released a variety of Nerica that
was specifically developed in that country. Ethiopia, Madagascar,
Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania are currently evaluating several
Mr. Nwanze notes that the potential in Nigeria, his own country, is
particularly great. Nigeria alone accounts for about half of the
840,000 hectares of land under rice cultivation in West Africa.
President Olusegun Obasanjo "is taking special interest" in Nerica,
observes Mr. Nwanze, and has established a presidential committee
on rice. The African Development Bank has announced that it will
help finance further dissemination of Nerica varieties in Nigeria,
as part of a $31 mn Bank programme in seven countries.
African farmers' excitement over Nerica is eliciting growing
enthusiasm among donors, development agencies and research
institutions as well. A few years after WARDA first developed
Nerica, the government of Japan embraced it as an example of
Asian-African cooperation and provided support for its
dissemination. A Japanese non-governmental organization known as
the Motherland Academy, which for 20 years has been sending
Japanese rice to famine-stricken areas of Africa, decided in 2002
to help farmers in Mali grow Nerica rice varieties.
The African Development Bank, UN Development Programme, UN Food and
Agriculture Organization, World Bank, European Union and numerous
bilateral donor agencies and foundations also have supported Nerica
activities. WARDA, says Mr. Nwanze, is not only a model of regional
cooperation in West Africa, "but also a model of collaborative
partnership - we have Africans, Asians, Latin Americans and
Through this collective effort, the African Rice Initiative aims,
by 2006, to increase the total area cultivated under Nerica from
24,000 hectares (in 2002) to 210,000 hectares. At Nerica's average
yields, this should bring in about 750,000 tonnes annually,
permitting African countries to spend $90 mn less on rice imports.
Peace and policies
For African rice farmers to be able to fully realize Nerica's
potential benefits, a number of obstacles need to be tackled.
Achieving peace is one of them, both for farmers to grow their
crops and for agricultural scientists to conduct their research.
Before the 1990s, WARDA was headquartered in Monrovia, Liberia. But
the outbreak of a devastating civil war at the start of that decade
brought the destruction of its research laboratories and local seed
banks, and forced the centre to move to Côte d'Ivoire. WARDA
invested $30 mn in its new location, but with the eruption of civil
war in Côte d'Ivoire in September 2002, "we have been dislodged
again," reports Mr. Nwanze. Its scientists now work from Bamako,
Mali, with the management and support staff operating in Abidjan,
Côte d'Ivoire's commercial capital. Fortunately, by quickly
interceding with the government, UN and French peacekeeping forces,
WARDA was able to ensure that its Ivorian facilities were not
attacked by any of the belligerents. Nevertheless, the conflict,
coming just as Nerica was picking up steam, derailed the promotion
Supportive agricultural policies also are vital, Mr. Nwanze
explains. Governments must invest more in agriculture, while at the
same time "devolving responsibility to the private sector." Farmers
need incentives to produce, rice processors and sellers require a
profitable environment, some system of quality control needs to be
in place to ensure reasonable standards and public awareness
campaigns could help consumers appreciate Nerica's qualities.
Nigeria, Mr. Nwanze reports, has set out an ambitious agenda to
reform the entire rice sector, "from producers to millers to
processors and traders."
Historically, Mr. Nwanze points out, local rice production in West
Africa has been competitive and profitable. However, with the
widespread importation of cheap non-African rice - often subsidized
by rice exporting countries - "local prices become unattractive."
Governments therefore "need to put in place policies that will
encourage farmers to invest in rice," Mr. Nwanze says. Nigeria, for
example, has imposed a high tariff on imported rice in order to
encourage domestic production.
With favourable conditions, Nerica has the potential not only to
strengthen agriculture in Africa, but also beyond. "The new rice
for Africa," notes a WARDA document, "may also help farmers who
grow upland rice" in Asia and Latin America.
Persistence, innovation and coconut milk
It took hard work to make the Nerica breakthrough possible, notes
Mr. Kanayo Nwanze, director-general of the West Africa Rice
Development Association (WARDA). He gives much of the credit for
this development to the "father of Nerica," Mr. Monty Jones, a
scientist from Sierra Leone . In 1991, Mr. Jones began working in
the rice centre's laboratories and test fields to successfully
cross two strains of rice, known by their scientific names as oryza
glaberrima (from Africa) and oryza sativa (from Asia).
Oryza glaberrima is an ancient variety, and is believed to have
been first cultivated in parts of West Africa some 3,500 years ago.
This African rice, explains Mr. Nwanze, "was more like a weedy
grass. It didn't yield very much. The grains shattered when they
About 450 years ago, Portuguese travellers first introduced the
Asian rice, oryza sativa, which was higher yielding and gradually
displaced African varieties in lowland rice-growing areas. Improved
versions of Asian rice also were promoted in Africa in the 1960s
and 1970s as part of efforts to export Asia's "green revolution" to
the continent. But those efforts failed, in part because the
higher-yielding Asian rices depended on significant inputs,
especially irrigation and fertilizer, and were vulnerable to
Africa's harsh weather conditions and poor soils. They were "not
adapted to the African environment," Mr. Nwanze told Africa
Only about 7 per cent of Africa's arable land is irrigated, and
most African rice farms traditionally depend on rainfall. They also
are poor, and cannot afford to install irrigation systems or buy
much fertilizer. So as rice consumption increased, local production
lagged and countries had to import increasing quantities of rice.
Rather than trying to "adapt" the African environment to Asian rice
varieties by developing costly irrigation systems, WARDA's
scientists took a different approach. They focused on improving
indigenous rice varieties that were already well suited to African
conditions, by combining with them the high-yield characteristics
of Asian rice.
Of the thousand or so African rice varieties in WARDA's seed banks,
they selected one of the most common, oryza glaberrima. After years
of work, they had some successes in crossing it with oryza sativa,
but also encountered a big obstacle: about 90 per cent of the
offspring, known as "progeny," were infertile. That meant that
while farmers might grow the new variety, they would not be able to
save any seeds for planting next year's crop - they would have to
buy new seeds.
Mr. Jones concentrated on a technique known as "embryo rescue," in
which the embryo is removed from a progeny and placed in a culture
to change its characteristics. After travelling to China, he
discovered that adding coconut milk to the culture worked
especially well in reducing the sterility of WARDA's new crossed
varieties. "So, Eureka!" Mr. Nwanze exclaimed. "Coconut milk was
the trick. That was how he achieved stable progenies."
Mr. Nwanze, aware of public concerns about genetic modification of
plants and other living organisms, adds that WARDA's method of
producing Nerica involves "very simple bio-technology." There is no
transfer of genes from one species to another, but rather the
crossing of different varieties of the same species. Such
crossbreeding occurs in nature, and farmers often experiment on
their own to develop new crossbreeds. WARDA's contribution is to
apply modern scientific methods to such a process.
Moreover, notes Ms. Susan McCouch of the Rockefeller Foundation's
Rice Biotechnology Programme, the development of new varieties such
as Nerica can "significantly increase global biodiversity in rice."
This is FAO's International Year of Rice. In addition to the WARDA
site mentioned above, other useful sources are:
Food and Agriculture Organization
U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service
A recent overview of the Nigerian rice economy is available at:
Resources on the impact on rich country subsidies on agricultural
exports can be found at:
AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication
providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with
a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus
Bulletin is edited by William Minter.
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