Growing Rice in Africa

Stephen DeAngelis

October 16, 2007

Famine and hunger are twin plagues for much of the African continent. They are also two of the reasons that those areas remain in grinding poverty. The requirement to mount new food relief efforts seems neverending. Those relief efforts are becoming more expensive (which translates into less relief) because more and more agricultural land being turned over to crops aimed for the ethanol market. That is one of the reasons that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teamed with the Rockefeller Foundation in an effort to promote a “green revolution” in Africa. Last year I wrote a post about that partnership [Gates & Rockefeller Foundations Tackle Food Security in Africa]. The news was not welcomed by everyone. Some critics believe that if the “green revolution” primarily stresses the use of fertilizers, the cure will be worse than the disease. One answer being pursued is more robust plants. Celia W. Dugger, writing in the New York Times, notes that even when potential answers exist, implementing those answers isn’t always easy [“In Africa, Prosperity From Seeds Falls Short,” 10 October 2007]. The answer addressed in Dugger’s article is rice.

“The seeds are a marvel, producing bountiful, aromatic rice crops resistant to drought, pests and disease. But a decade after their introduction, they have spread to only a tiny fraction of the land here in West Africa where they could help millions of farming families escape poverty. At a time when philanthropists like Bill Gates have become entranced by the possibility of a Green Revolution for Africa, the New Rices for Africa, as scientists call the wonder seeds, offer a clear warning. Even the most promising new crop varieties will not by themselves bring the plentiful harvests that can end poverty.”

When addressing development challenges, those involved must take a holistic approach or they are likely to be disappointed with the results. Failure to address the entire challenge is apparently what happened in the case of these new rice varieties.

“New ways to get seeds into the hands of farmers are needed, as well as broader investment in the basic ingredients of a farm economy: roads, credit and farmer education, among others. Developed with financing from wealthy countries and private foundations, the New Rices for Africa, or Nericas, are unpatented and may be grown by anyone. Yet there is a severe shortage of them in a region where both the private and the agricultural sectors are woefully undeveloped.”

Even looking at the “A” to “Z” processes of a particular sector is not sufficient. The financial sector, the market sector, the transportation sector, the energy sector, the telecommunications sector, and so on all touch on the success of the agricultural sector. It is the integration of the economy that lifts people out of poverty, not just success in one particular sector. Back to the story about African rice.

“In West Africa, where rice is a staple crop, the African Development Bank is financing a $34 million program in seven countries to spur wider use of the new rice seeds. But the obstacles are daunting. Farmers typically lack credit to buy seed and fertilizer. And the agricultural economy itself suffers from a lack of investment. Foreign aid for agriculture has plunged over the past two decades. And African governments — some, like Guinea, endowed with natural resources and cursed with corruption — have too often spent less of that wealth than they might have on rural development. Decent roads to move crops to market are scarce. So are storage facilities to preserve harvests and crop insurance to protect farmers from drought, flood or bumper yields that perversely cause prices to collapse. All can wipe out the income farmers need to provide reliable demand to seed companies, making sale and distribution of the improved seeds a high-risk venture. Across the region, a handful of private companies in Nigeria and Benin have begun to multiply and market the new rice varieties. Here in Guinea, where there is not a single seed company, the government is now working with farmers to expand the supply of Nericas seed.”

According to Dugger, farmers are willing (even anxious) to plant and harvest the new seeds. The problem is that they can’t get them in sufficient quantity.

“Villagers here in Hermakono [Guinea] first enviously spotted the new rices growing in a neighboring community’s field. In 2006, after writing to the Agriculture Ministry, they got their first small store of the seeds. So precious were they that as the first crop grew heavy with grain, the villagers took turns standing watch in the fields. ‘We divided into small groups to guard it so nobody would steal even one stalk,’ said Goulou Camara, a farmer. Early one morning last year, a dozen farmers threshed their first harvest. They swirled in a circle, kicking golden sheaves of rice into the air with their bare feet, then beating them with sticks to shake loose the grains. They were determined not to eat any of it, but to save it to plant as seed.”

Of course, rice saved as seed is rice not available to sell or eat. That demonstrates how valuable farmers see the new crops — they are willing to do whatever belt tightening they need to do in order to secure a better future for themselves and their families.

“Only about 200,000 African farmers are sowing the new rices on just 5 percent of the land where they could thrive, according to the Africa Rice Center, an international research institution based in Benin that developed the new rices in the mid-1990s. In contrast to Africa, India had a stronger foundation when new wheat varieties set off a Green Revolution there in the 1960s and 1970s, allowing the nation to feed hundreds of millions of people. India had a public seed company to take the marketing risks, far more irrigated farmland and a better road system. ‘If we don’t develop the infrastructure, there’s no way we’ll attain the Green Revolution,’ said Monty Jones, the plant breeder whose groundbreaking research led to creation of the new rices. ‘How do you bring the Nericas to farmers? How do you get farmers to know the seeds exist?'”

Jones is right; you can’t start a revolution without connectivity. The fourth step of the Development-in-a-Box™ flexible framework is training accompanied by a broadbased public education program. This step is intended to address Jones’ question about how farmers can learn about the existence of available programs. You can establish the best programs in the world, ensure they run using the best practices, but if no one knows about or uses them they just as well not exist.

“Mr. Jones now leads the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, based in Ghana. He also serves on the board of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a nonprofit group financed with an initial $150 million from the Gates and Rockefeller foundations. The alliance intends to invest $23 million to promote the distribution of promising seeds.”

Mr. Jones life story is worthy of article by itself. He is a homegrown success story.

“Mr. Jones, 55, who was born into the Creole elite of Sierra Leone, said he decided to go into the agricultural sciences when as a teenager he heard of rioting over rice shortages in West Africa. At age 39, he was put in charge of a team breeding upland rain-fed rice varieties at the West Africa Rice Development Agency, now the Africa Rice Center. For more than a generation, scientists had unsuccessfully sought to combine the hardy Afri
can rice species with high-yield Asian species. With great ingenuity, his team overcame the obstacles and produced the first new rices more than a decade ago. The new seeds increased yields even without fertilizer and more than doubled them with it. From planting to harvest, they also took three months rather than the five or six required by traditional varieties, putting rice on the family table during the hungry season. But to sustain increased yields, farmers need a reliable source of fresh seed. Productivity declines when the new seeds become degraded after mixing with local varieties in storage sheds and fields and on the floors of the farmers’ huts.”

To demonstrate how quickly seed degradation can occur, Dugger recalls the experience of Odia Camara, a 30-year-old farmer and mother of five.

“[In 2002,] Ms. Camara’s group of about 50 farmers, all women, initially organized to grow vegetables, was one of two groups in the village that got their chance [to grow the new variety of rice]. The government provided each of them with a scant 55 pounds of seed, as well as subsidized fertilizer — enough for a small plot. The groups also got basic machines to thresh, husk and parboil the rice from Sasakawa-Global 2000, a nonprofit partnership organized by Jimmy Carter and Norman Borlaug, the scientist who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to the original Asian Green Revolution. The first two years, the new rices yielded the village’s richest rice harvests ever — triple the usual amount. There was plenty of the aromatic rice to feed the families and cash left over to pay children’s school fees. Even cranky marriages mellowed. … But 2004 brought signs of trouble. The groups had a decent harvest, but the acreage planted was greater and the yields lower because the new seed was not as pure. In 2005, international donors did not give Guinea fertilizer, and the government provided none to the farmers in the area, nor did private traders bring any to local markets, according to government officials. At harvest time, yields plummeted. Hunger stole back. Ms. Camara’s group grew so discouraged, she said, that it wanted to give up on the new rices.”

Ms. Camara’s case demonstrates that creating a “sustainable” economy is not as easy as some people might think. Lots of moving parts are involved and when any one of them goes missing, the process breaks down. Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story. The Guinea government provided the village with new seed and is encouraging them to continue growing it. The government is also providing seed throughout much of the rest of the country.

“Despite the challenges, the new rices spread farther in Guinea than in any other country, covering 16 percent of the area under rice production — progress credited to the commitment of civil servants and the enthusiasm of the political elite. But the rice seeds could have reached many more farmers if they knew about them and were able to buy them, researchers say. Guinean officials complained that rich countries had not invested enough in agriculture. But Tareke Berhe, an agronomist who represented Sasakawa-Global 2000 in Guinea from 1996 to 2004, said the government should have spent more on agricultural fundamentals. Guinea is rich in resources but has been plagued by corruption and ruled for more than two decades by the autocratic leader Lansana Conté. ‘Guinea doesn’t have to depend on anybody,’ Mr. Berhe said. ‘It’s a rich country in every way. It has diamonds, gold, bauxite. It has forestry products, lumber. It has a long coastline with fisheries.’ Meanwhile, the people make do. After a grueling afternoon threshing rice last year, Ms. Camara sat in front of her mud hut with her baby boy on her lap. She had earlier spoken lyrically about farming when surrounded by women, but grew silent in the presence of her elder brother-in-law, Aboubacar Oularé, 40, a community health worker. In measured tones, Mr. Oularé explained that the new rices made up only a small portion of what the villagers cultivated. Still, he credited the harvests with relieving the suffering of his illiterate sister-in-law and her family. And if the seeds spread, they could improve more lives.”

Development is tough. It requires the combined efforts, best practices, and resources that can be applied to the challenge. At every turn development efforts face roadblocks, like corruption, disconnected economic sectors, and lack of vision. When one looks at the resources now available, both public and private, there has never been a better time to crack the code and make millions of people’s lives better. The key is coordination, cooperation, and collaboration.