1. Africa: Rediscovering African rice (IRIN, SciDev.net, AfricaRice, Farm Radio Weekly)

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A leading rice research centre, AfricaRice, announced last month that it will focus on improving indigenous African rice species. This is a change in direction. For many years, scientists have been working on Asian rice.

African rice, Oryza glaberrima, was first domesticated in West Africa more than 3,000 years ago. Now it is nearly extinct.

Most African farmers grow Asian rice, Oryza sativa. But some farmers still grow the red African rice on small pieces of land. On the Danyi plateau in Togo, women farmers say, “Once you taste our rice, you will never like any other rice. It stays in your stomach, unlike the modern varieties.”

AfricaRice is an intergovernmental research organization. It is based in Cotonou, Benin. It was here that scientists developed the first NERICA rice varieties twenty years ago. NERICA stands for “New Rice for Africa.” The most desirable traits of African rice were transferred into Asian rice. Eighty NERICA varieties have since been developed to suit different conditions. Farmers in about 20 African countries have adopted and cultivated them.

AfricaRice’s decision is quite significant. Dr. Koichi Futakuchi is a researcher who works on the African species. He explains, “… now, for the first time, we’re extracting desirable traits from the Asian rice and transferring them into the African rice.”

The decision was inspired by farmers. Rice breeders, like Dr. Moussa Sié, have long known that farmers appreciate African rice. Dr. Sié said, “Many years ago in Burkina Faso, where I come from, women farmers told me that one bag of African rice lasts as long as two or three bags of Asian rice.”

Dr. Sié has been trying for 32 years to get African rice on to the research agenda. He is now involved in research which confirms that African rice is more adaptable to harsh growing conditions than Asian rice. Yields are similar. However, African rice copes better with poor soils and severe weather. It is better able to compete with weeds and withstand rice pests and diseases.

Over the past five years, scientists have bred varieties of African rice that are high-yielding. These new varieties are now being evaluated in farmers’ fields, such as the Danyi plateau in Togo. Results are promising.

With the climate changing and population still increasing, both farmers and scientists hope that improving African rice will boost local rice production.