Researchers launch high yielding rice variety to tame import gap

Researchers under the auspices of Africa Rice Center have introduced 6 new stress tolerant high yielding rice inspired by the need to tame the high dependence on imports, with statistics indicating that the continent imports about 10 million metric tonnes  annually accounting for a third of the total global production.

Rice is grown in more than 75 percent of African countries, with a combined population of close to 800 million people. However statistics from African Rice Center indicate that demand of the commodity in the continent exceeds local supply prompting imports from mainly Asia with import appreciating by about 3.7 percent per annum. The low supply of rice from the local farmers according to African Rice Center is not attributed to climate, but water supply.

Based on this background, players in the sector led by Africa Rice Center have invested heavily in research to change the script. The new breeds were nominated by The Rice Breeding Task Force convened by the Africa Rice Center and are part of the wider project known as Advanced Rice Varieties for Africa (ARICA) launched in 2013. The ARICA varieties are selected through rigorous multi-environment testing process including regional and national trials as well as participatory varietal selection involving farmers.

To be eligible for nomination as ARICA, a variety must have a significant advantage over the benchmark in a region over 3 years and must be backed by solid data. Improved rice varieties that are approved for release by countries are also considered. The six varieties were developed with tolerance to iron toxicity, cold, and salt. One variety is notable as it combines tolerance to two stresses, namely, iron toxicity and cold.

The varieties were evaluated through the project Stress Tolerant Rice for Africa and South Asia (STRASA) which is helping farmers who produce their crop under predominantly rain-fed conditions, in which stresses such as drought, flood, cold, iron toxicity and salinity reduce yields. The STRASA project is being implemented by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and Africa Rice in partnership with national programs with support from the Bill and Melinda gates foundation. 

“It’s wonderful to see that products of the first two phases of the STRASA project in Africa have now reached the stage to move into farmers’ fields,  said Dr Gary Atlin, Senior Program Officer from Bill and Melinda Gate foundation. The STRASA project is using conventional plant breeding combined with molecular breeding to develop stress-tolerant materials. “Incorporating stress tolerance into popular high-yielding varieties has proven to be a very effective approach,” explained Dr Baboucarr Manneh, Africa Rice Irrigated Rice Breeder and STASA African Coordinator.

Through the project, STRASA partners have produced more than 15,000 tonnes of improved seed between 2008 and 2012 and distributed to farmers. More than a 1000 scientists, technicians and farmers have been trained in improved rice cultivation techniques, seed production, new breeding methods and seed enterprise methods.

According to a report prepared by European Cooperative for Rural Development titled, ‘Rice Sector Development In East Africa’, The African rice situation may get worse before it gets better. For instance, there was an alarming statistic of African rice imports reaching 9.8 MT in 2009 - which represents one-third of the world market and 40 percent of its own needs. This indicates that rice demand in Africa is growing the fastest in the world 6percent per year calling for consulted efforts to address this situation The report indicated that to tame the high import trend of the commodity, concerted efforts like breeding of new high yielding and stress tolerant varieties is a key factor.