The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) Wednesday announced that African rice breeders had made ”critical steps” towards ensuring self-sufficiency and boosting African rice production, AGRA said in a statement.
The announcement was made at the inaugural meeting in Kampala, Uganda, of the Rice Breeders Network, a consortium of eminent rice breeders, researchers, and seed companies from more than 10 African countries.
It came amid growing concern on the impact of rising food prices and new restrictions on rice exports from Asian countries hit adverse climate conditions.
The statement said recent advances were largely the result of funding from the Nairobi-based AGRA, which also announced ambitious plans to support the development and release of new rice varieties in Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda, Mali, Nigeria and Malawi that will ultimately boost local production, improve regional food security and reduce Africa’s over-reliance on rice imports from Asia.
In addition to these countries, network participants hailed from Benin, Ghana, South Africa and Tanzania.
”Recent successes and future efforts focus on breeding locally adapted varieties of ‘Nerica’ rice, which is a resilient, high-yielding cross of an African and Asian rice species,” AGRA said.
Breeders of Nerica rice won the World Food Prize in 2004.
As an “upland” rice, Nerica is not restricted to growing in paddies, thus enabling African farmers to grow rice in places that no one before thought possible.
But to make use of Nericas, farmers need locally-adapted varieties that are early maturing, disease resistant, have the aroma and taste that local communities prefer, and have “spikes” that protect the rice from hungry birds.
The successful development and release of stress-tolerant upland and lowland irrigated rice varieties has begun to significantly increase rice production in some countries, including Uganda.
At the same time, there is the need for strong government support of rice breeding and seed distribution programs to maximize gains.
“African rice consumption exceeds production. Only 54 percent of sub-Saharan Africa rice consumption is supplied locally,” said AGRA programme officer Jane Ininda at the Kampala meeting.
“Farmers need new high-yielding, locally-adapted varieties to raise rice yield and turn around Africa’s food crisis situation. Governments should develop policies that speed up the breeding and distribution of new varieties. There is need for urgent action here,” she added.
The demand for rice in sub-Saharan Africa is double the rate of population growth and consumption is growing faster than that of any other major food staple.
But rather than substantially increasing local production, demand for imports has surged.
In Mali, for example, rice imports doubled over a four-year period, increasing from 51,969 tones in 2000 to 105,390 tones in 2004.
“As long as Africa depends on imports for meeting our food demands, we will experience food crises as the costs continue to rise for consumers,” said Dr. Namanga Ngongi, AGRA’s President.
“We must boost local production. We must grow our own food,” he added.
AGRA is a partnership-based organisation that works across sub-Saharan Africa to end rural poverty and hunger by increasing the productivity and sustainability of small holder farming.
AGRA is funding the Rice Breeders Network meeting and many of the new breeding efforts.