Farmers embrace African 'miracle' rice

High-yielding 'Nerica' varieties to combat hunger and rural poverty
From Africa Renewal: 
Un cultivateur de Nerica en Guinée : le Nerica a un rendement de 2 à 3 fois plus élevé que les variétés courantes de riz. Photo: © PNUD Choices / Sadio Barry
A Nerica farmer in Guinea: Nerica yields are 2-3 times higher than those of standard rice varieties. Photo: © UNDP Choices / Sadio Barry

When drought came two years ago to Zaguiguia, in western Côte 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 school.”

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 of rice.

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.


A Nerica farmer in Guinea: Nerica yields are 2-3 times higher than those of standard rice varieties.
Photo: © UNDP Choices / Sadio Barry


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 (see page 13). 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, next page). When Nerica was first tested in research fields in Côte 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 Côte 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 farmers.”

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.”


Since Nerica rice has a shorter growing cycle, it saves labour time of the farmers who grow it, most of whom are women.
Photo: © UNDP Choices / Sadio Barry


Farmer participation

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 farmer participation.”

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 varieties.

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, Côte 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 Nerica varieties.

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 Europeans.”

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 campaign there.

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

Mr. Kanayo Nwanze
photo: Africa Recovery / Ernest Harsch

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 matured.”

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 Recovery.

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.”