Scientist wins prize for new African rice

From Africa Renewal: 
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Monty Jones, scientist who led development of New Rice for Africa (Nerica), boosting yields for poor farmers. Photo: World Food Prize

Dr. Monty Jones, a plant scientist from Sierra Leone, became the first African ever to win the prestigious World Food Prize at a ceremony in the US farming state of Iowa on 14 October. He was honoured for his breakthrough work in developing the New Rice for Africa (Nerica), a drought-resistant, high-yielding, protein-rich type of rice. Nerica has been embraced by the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) as an example of the kind of innovative efforts that can help spur Africa's agricultural development and reduce hunger (see Africa Recovery, January 2004).

Mr. Jones shared the $250,000 prize with Prof. Yuan Longping, who developed the world's first successful and widely grown high-yielding hybrid rice varieties in his native China in the 1970s. The World Food Prize was created in 1986 by the world-renowned agricultural scientist Dr. Norman Borlaug, whose work contributed to the "green revolution" of the 1970s.

Noting that Mr. Jones led the pioneering work on Nerica in the 1990s while a senior research scientist with the West African Rice Development Association (WARDA), the official prize citation stated that "he captured the genetic potential of ancient African rices by combining African and Asian rice species, dramatically increasing yields and offering great hope to millions of poor farmers."

A delegation of a dozen African ambassadors who went to Iowa for the prize ceremony presented a statement indicating that the award honoured not only the efforts of Dr. Jones and WARDA, but also "the thousands of African scientists who are working hard to find breakthroughs to end hunger and poverty in Africa."

African plan needs to 'speed up'

NEPAD has already made some notable progress in the three years since its adoption, African leaders acknowledged in late November. But more efforts are required to get concrete projects and programmes rolling on the ground. Gathered in Algiers on 22­23 November, a score of African heads of state noted that the initiative has so far placed African issues high on the international development agenda, prepared a short-term action plan for infrastructure development and launched the "peer review" process by which African countries assess each other's political and economic management (see article "States call each other to account").

However, added Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the initiative must find ways to "speed up" the implementation of projects and programmes. "I am disappointed," Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade stated at a NEPAD conference held in South Africa a month earlier. "I have great difficulties explaining what we have achieved when people at home and elsewhere ask me that question." Although NEPAD is a plan of the African Union, the responsibility for working with financing institutions to identify and implement projects rests with the continent's sub-regional economic communities.

A cassava initiative kicks off

NEPAD, in conjunction with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, based in Ibadan, Nigeria, has launched a Pan-African Cassava Initiative. The initiative came out of consultative workshops in West, East, Central and Southern Africa and aims to help national governments formulate their own cassava programmes. The goal is to mobilize resources from Africa's partners to support research and development of cassava, the continent's second most widely consumed staple food (the first is maize). The root crop is easy to grow even in very difficult climates, and is widely cultivated by smallholders, especially women, across several of Africa's ecological zones. Despite cassava's role in Africa, there has so far been very little research into improving the crop.

Gender, civil society adviser named

Ms. Lithi Musyimi-Ogana, from Kenya, was named in October as head of the NEPAD Secretariat's newly created office on gender and civil society organizations. The move comes in response to earlier criticisms from women's rights and civil society activists that the African plan was initially drafted without significant public discussion and that it did not sufficiently incorporate their concerns. Ms. Musyimi-Ogana brings with her more than 20 years of experience with Kenya's Ministry of Finance, as regional director of the African Centre for Empowerment, Gender and Advocacy and as an adviser on gender and governance with the New York­based Women's Environment and Development Organization, an international non-governmental organization.

'NEPAD train is moving'

"The NEPAD train is moving, and the civil society in Kenya has decided to be on board," Ms. Grace Akumu, an environmental activist, told a conference on NEPAD and civil society in Nairobi in October. She urged participants to select thematic coordinators to work with the African Peer Review Mechanism and encouraged the NEPAD Secretariat, based in South Africa, to "practice an open-door policy towards information access and disclosure." The chairperson of Kenya's National Council of NGOs, Ms. Orie Rogo-Manduli, said that public debates about NEPAD should be extended to the slums and rural areas.