GENET archive


rice in africa

March 14, 2000
Rice is a staple food in Africa. In West and East Africa, rice 
more calories and protein than any other cereal crop, and demand for 
rice is
growing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world.
Over the past 3,500 years, West African farmers have learned to 
high-quality rice with little fertilizer and without pesticides. Grown
primarily in areas with adequate rainfall, these rice varieties 
weeds and local pests and produced a sufficient amount to feed growing
populations. In the process of learning to grow rice, farmers - 
mostly women
- became the custodians of a rich tradition of agricultural 
knowledge. This
knowledge sustained the economies of great kingdoms and civilizations 
in an
area ranging from what is now Senegal in the north to Equatorial 
Guinea in
the south. As Africa's population grew, rice farmers had difficulty
producing enough to meet growing demand. In the 1960s, Africa went 
self-sufficiency in rice production to dependence on imports and,
eventually, food aid. Since the 1960s, imports have increased eight-
fold to
4 million metric tons per year, at an annual cost of almost US$1 
During the same period, Asia - the world's largest rice-producing 
region -
experienced unparalleled growth in rice production. Sparked by 
research that
created a new class of more productive rice plants, Asia not only 
averted a
long-predicted food crisis in the 1970s, but was able to use its rice
surplus to fuel its economies. As Asian rice farmers sold surpluses, 
were able to buy other goods and services with increased incomes and
establish a set of powerful Asian economies. Buoyed by Asia's 
many African governments began importing the new Asian rice plants in 
1970s with the expectation that they would have a similar positive 
That hope quickly died, however, as the Asian varieties failed to 
thrive in
on-farm trials. African farmers needed a new type of plant developed
specifically for African farming conditions. Researchers believed 
that they
would find this new plant by combining the ruggedness of traditional 
of African rice with the grain-producing potential of Asian species.
Unfortunately, the two species were genetically different and 
attempts to
cross them failed. By the late 1980s, however, advances in 
science allowed researchers to cross the African and Asian species. 
Using a
technique known as embryo-rescue, scientists were able to ensure that
crosses between the two species would survive and grow to maturity,
something that had been impossible before. It took more than five 
years and
it cost about US$10 million to produce a series of successful 
crosses, but
by all accounts, the new rice for Africa was a good investment. Like 
African ancestors, the improved plants choked off grain-robbing 
weeds. They
freed women and children from the laborious task of weeding and 
allowed them
to do other more productive things. The new varieties also maintained
resistance to local pests and grew well in Africa's acidic soils. 
Today, the
new rice varieties hold the potential for doubling or possibly 
production - a characteristic inherited from the plant's Asian 
ancestor. The
older African rice plants produced 75 to100 grains per plant, while 
the new
varieties produce up to 400 grains per plant. The new rice plants are 
ready for harvesting 30 to 50 days earlier than their predecessors, 
farmers to grow extra crops of beans and vegetables. Equally 
important, the
new plants have about two percent more body-building proteins than 
varieties. This is an important health benefit in a region where
malnutrition affects millions of children and pregnant women. The 
of the new African rice to increase production and boost economies has
attracted the attention of economists. While it is too early to 
predict how
the new rice will affect the rice-producing areas of West Africa, 
there is
much cause for optimism. In a region where 240 million people eat 
rice as
their staple food, African rice farmers now have the opportunity to
revitalize rice production. The new African rice may return benefits 
Asian farmers as well. The African rice has many of the 
characteristics most
needed by poor farmers in Asia and Latin America, many of whom did not
benefit from the first generation of improved Asian rice.
For more information, please contact Guy Manners of the West Africa 
Development Association at or visit

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