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Eureka, it's NERICA: New Rice for Africa

Technology, partnership yield radical prospects


In a large portion of West Africa, rice is the staple—demand has risen at about 5 percent annually since 1970 among various populations and across income groups. An average small farmer grows rice on half of his or her land of 2 to 3 hectares to feed 13 to 15 family members. With rice yields decreasing and demand increasing, however, there is a chronic shortage of rice, with annual regional imports topping $1 billion.

To address these challenges, the West Africa Rice Development Association (WARDA) in 1992 initiated research programs aimed at developing improved rice varieties with superior performance characteristics. The NERICA (new rice for Africa) program set out to combine the ruggedness of the African rice with the productivity of the Asian species. All efforts to combine their best genetic traits had failed, until now.

"New technologies in rice-based cropping systems are yielding 25 to 250 percent production gains," says Eugene Terry, RDV's Agricultural Research and Crops Adviser, and former Director General of WARDA. "These new improved varieties promise to increase land and labor productivity of the rice producers in the sub-region in a dramatic and sustainable way."

Dr. Monty Jones examines NERICA lines with Dr. Amir Yacouba Sido of Niger's national Agricultural Research Institute

Jones spearheaded WARDA's efforts to develop the NERICA technology. Bintu Delphine Koudou cultivates NERICA hybrid rice varieties on a hectare of land in southern Cote d'Ivoire

Mother and daughter in NERICA fields

Farmers in Cote d´Ivoire select the NERICA rice varieties to grow during PVS trials. Here they compare panicles of rice varieites during post-harvest evaluation

When MASAF approached the communities, it became clear that support to vulnerable groups was rarely identified as a priority. However, nearly all women’s groups mentioned the AIDS epidemic and its impact on the community as the biggest obstacles they face on a day-to-day basis. “Caring for the AIDS-infected and an increasing number of orphans, including orphans infected with HIV, as well as providing for the elderly whose children had died of AIDS, put an enormous strain on the community, both economically and socially,” says Sam Kakhobwe, Executive Director of MASAF.

To ensure that the SSP is based on strong community orientation, a sponsoring agency must prove to have not only a minimum of two years, professional experience in the relevant field, but also demonstrate its ability to work in the community. In order for an organization to be eligible for funding under the SSP component, it must also declare its status and be a registered not-for-profit NGO. It must be transparent and accountable and have the needed institutional capacity to effectively implement projects. Finally, the organization should be able to produce at least 20 percent  up-front contribution of the total project cWARDA used molecular biology to overcome sterility, the main problem in crossing the species, and to speed the breeding process. With conventional breeding, the progeny provides large numbers of different plant types. Conventionally, it takes five to seven generations to isolate and purify, and select a line with the desired combination of genetic traits, but this cycle has been significantly shortened through the innovative breeding technique used by the WARDA scientists, and farmer assistance. By the mid-1990s, WARDA scientists were testing NERICAs in rain-fed conditions.

In farmers' fields in Guinea, one of the top five rice-producing countries in West Africa, farmers have been partnering with scientists, with the aid of World Bank funding, to tailor new rice varieties to suit their own needs. That is partly why the technology has been spreading so quickly. Scientists don't give farmers finished varieties to grow—instead, through a mechanism called participatory varietal selection (PVS), farmers grow several varieties on their land and give feedback to scientists. Scientists learn what traits farmers value, providing scientists with a better understanding of farmer's needs, and improving the farmer-researcher relationship. With demand growing, PVS is currently active in 17 West and Central African countries.

Guinea has been the setting for the majority of NERICA progress. By 1997, some 116 farmers in eight prefectures had completed the on-farm trials using three new varieties each. By 2000, the technology had exploded among small-scale farmers, with twenty thousand farmers growing NERICA on 5000 acres.

"At this stage in Guinea," says Amadou Moustapha Beye, WARDA technology transfer agronomist, "we're developing a network. The whole system from technology, generation, through seed production, paddy production , rice processing and milling, to rice marketing, are all being used to upgrade the rice-based production system in the country."

Both the hybrid technology and the network are addressing agricultural sustainability issues as well. About 40 percent of West Africa's 4.1 million hectares of rice is grown under upland/rain-fed conditions, grown like maize, and about 80 percent of this is slash-and-burn agriculture. Each crop grown after a slash-and-burn cycle produces less than the previous harvest—stressing an already fragile ecosystem, and driving up demand for rice imports.

The new hybrid varieties of upland rice mature in only three months, allowing for planting of a second crop or a leguminous cover crop to improve soil fertility. This makes it possible to plant rice for more than one year before returning land to fallow, reducing slash-and-burn agriculture. It also provides food during the difficult "hungry" season.

Benefits of the hybrid rice are numerous. NERICA combines the resistance of the African parent to pests, diseases and water stress with the yield potential of the Asian parent; it reduces weeding requirements and tastes good, say the farmers. The new hybrid displays drought tolerance as well as acid-soil tolerance. It even has a higher protein content than both the African and Asian parents.

"Barring unforeseen difficulties," says Hans Binswanger, Sector Director of Rural Development and the Environment, "we anticipate a rapid growth of rice production, leading to self-sufficiency within three or four years. We expect improved incomes and nutrition for the rural population and more affordable domestic rice for the urban population."

The challenge now is to exploit and disseminate this technology through the consolidation of a unified consortium. The plan is to create a network of participating institutions to promote the technology and build capacity in the network. Only small farmers, at a relatively small scale, have adopted the technology to this point. The anticipated benefits in terms of living standards truly depend on the development of a comprehensive approach to extend the use of NERICA to large farmers throughout the region.

Joining WARDA, partners have included the University of Tokyo, the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Science, the Institute for Research and Development (France), Cornell University (US), the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Science (China), the National Agricultural Research Systems (Africa), and several affiliates of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR): the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and the International Rice Research Institute. The Rockefeller Foundation also funded biotechnology-aided breeding approaches that increased the efficiency of WARDA's breeders.

More: Centers are supported by 58 governments, private foundations, and international and regional organizations known as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), of which the World Bank is a sponsor.

Useful Links: For more information on NERICA, please contact Eugene Terry at

Click here (CGIAR) for more information on NERICA.

Click here for a relevant newsletter from the Special Program for African Agricultural Research (SPAAR). osts.

Malawi Social Action Funds (MASAF) was launched in 1996. It was designed to finance self-help community projects and transfer cash through safety net activities. It thus depends primarily on the people’s commitment for its success. Although a government sponsored body, MASAF is nonetheless an autonomous body.

The primary beneficial groups MASAF is targeting are poor communities, individual households, vulnerable and disadvantaged social groups in both rural and urban areas.

Since its launch, MASAF project communities have built approximately 2000 class rooms, sunk 2000 boreholes, constructed a number of health centers and postal stations, and built 120 modern market facilities.

Helpful links: Click here for more on the Bank’s work in the Africa Region. Click here for more on the Bank’s work with NGOs. Click here for more on the Bank’s work in the area of Social Protection or here for Bank’s work in the area of Social Development.

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