Rice in Sierra Leone: Farmers first

Recently I visited Sierra Leone to discuss with the AfricaRice country coordinator based there (Bert Meertens) and our partners, in particular Dr Alfred Dixon from the Sierra Leone Agricultural Research Institute (SLARI). It is quite an adventure to visit Sierra Leone. Once you arrive at Lungi airport you still need to cross the Sierra Leone River. This time I took a speed boat (the alternative is a vintage Russian helicopter or you travel for a few hours by car over land) and arrived late at night at the other side of the river in Freetown. The next day I met with representatives from SLARI and the World Bank-funded West Africa Agricultural Productivity Program (WAAPP) project in an office in the very crowded center of town. Freetown gives the impression of being a bit suffocated — the possibilities to expand the city are apparently hampered by the surrounding lush green mountains.

For about 2 hours we discussed how to better coordinate rice research and development efforts in the country. Like other AfricaRice member countries, Sierra Leone has identified a number of ‘rice sector development hubs’. These hubs aim to facilitate integration of research products and local knowledge across the rice value chain to achieve development outcomes and impact. Hubs represent key rice-growing environments and different market opportunities and need to be linked to major national or regional rice-development efforts to facilitate broader uptake of rice knowledge and technologies. Sierra Leone has identified the following rice sector development hubs:

  • Mambolo in Northern Province and Rotifunk in the Southern Province (mangrove)
  • Bo and Kenema in Southern and Eastern Provinces (inland-valley swamp)
  • Tormabum and Gbondapi in Southern Province (riverain grassland, deep flooded)

Activities in most of these hubs have started and currently involve identification of bottlenecks and opportunities across the rice value chain and testing of ‘good agricultural practices’ with farmers.

Next to concentrating research efforts in Hubs and proactively connecting with development partners from both public and private sectors, those who met generally felt that adoption pathways for research products need to be ‘anticipated’ as early as possible. For example, AfricaRice is about to finalize upgrading the NERICA-L 19 variety (very popular in Sierra Leone) with the sub-1 gene, which will make it flood tolerant in the early growth stages. Varieties upgraded with the sub-1 gene are already cultivated widely in Asia. The work on upgrading NERICA-L 19 and other popular African varieties is done in collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) within the framework of the Stress Tolerant Rice for Poor Farmers in Africa and South Asia (STRASA) project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For Sierra Leone and neighboring countries there is a need to identify target areas for sub-1-upgraded varieties (e.g. using remote-sensing tools as has been done in Asia), clarify varietal release procedures and identify seed-multiplication partners.

In the afternoon we left for the SLARI research station in Rokupr, a small town in Northern Province, near the border of Guinea. The station is right in the middle of vast stretches of mangroves, inland-valley swamps and bolilands (seasonal swamps flooded for 2–4 months each year). It was established in 1934 as a rice experimental station and is being revamped after having suffered terribly in the civil war. It is still truly a beautiful campus with lots of potential, but, it must be said, very remote. It is a good 4 hours drive from Freetown. We saw many young faces, evidence that the recruitment wave of SLARI is paying off. These young people are currently being integrated into the rice research teams. Laboratories are generally well equipped, but mostly non-functional because of untrained staff, overly complex equipment, missing spare parts, and lack of electricity (available only 7 hours a day).

There were many opportunities during this trip to discuss Sierra Leone’s approach to rice sector development. Whereas Côte d’Ivoire seems to prefer a model heavily reliant on foreign investment (see my previous blog), Sierra Leone is taking farmer organizations as the entry point. Dr Dixon explained that these farmer organizations have often profited from knowledge gained in ‘farmer field schools’, facilitated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). They are now being grouped into ‘Agricultural Business Centers’ (ABCs) to commercialize agricultural products, including rice, in the framework of the Smallholder Commercialization Program established by the government. Almost 200 ABCs have now been established, out of a planned total of 600, and a lot of them produce lowland rice. They have been equipped with a standard set of infrastructure, such as mills, threshers and storage areas. The government is also helping farmers with rice commercialization by buying up rice during harvest and duty-free import of agricultural inputs. There is talk about establishing a national grain reserve to hold excess rice and manipulate rice flow for rice price adjustment when needed. ABCs are currently being ranked in terms of functionality by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security.

Rice is clearly becoming serious business in Sierra Leone with farmer groups moving into the processing and marketing parts of the value chain. The honorable Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security, Mr Joseph Sam Sesay of Sierra Leone will be present at the upcoming Africa Rice Congress in Cameroon (21–24 October 2013) and will surely provide more insight in his country’s effort to boost the rice sector.

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AfricaRice in Côte d’Ivoire: back to the future

Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are keen to develop their rice sector — the continent imported 12 million tonnes of rice in 2012 alone, costing US$ 5 billion. I travelled to Côte d’Ivoire some months ago, and it is clear that this country is no exception.

I first paid a visit to the AfricaRice research facility in M’bé, near the town of Bouaké. These 700 ha grounds were abandoned in 2002 because of the civil war. A handful of extremely dedicated staff were able to maintain the infrastructure in excellent shape throughout the conflict. Offices and laboratories are generally empty but have been kept clean. Posters in the hallways reflect research done more than a decade ago. All the calendars are stuck on the month of September 2002; AfricaRice staff were evacuated from Bouaké on 26 September 2002. Time has really stood still here.

Fast-forward to 2013: more than 10 years later we are finally able to re-use our facility, at the moment mainly for foundation seed production — the demand for rice seed in Côte d’Ivoire is enormous. In 2012, we produced 124 tonnes of foundation seed of four popular varieties (WITA 9, WAB 56-50, WAB 638-1 and NERICA 1) and that was as much as we could do. Slowly we hope to re-start research activities at M’bé profiting from the fact that all the main rice-growing environments — upland, rainfed lowland and irrigated — are present within the 700 ha experimental farm.

In Abidjan on the way back our regional representative in Côte d’Ivoire, Amadou Bèye, organized a meeting with high-ranking officials of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research to look into the rice future. The meeting was attended, among others, by the directors general and support staff of Direction générale des productions et de la sécurité alimentaire (DGSPA), Office national pour le développement de la riziculture (ONDR), Fonds Interprofessionnel pour la Recherche et le Conseil Agricoles (FIRCA), Agence nationale d’appui au développement rural (ANADER), Centre national de recherche agronomique (CNRA) and the director general of scientific research and technological innovation of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (who chaired the meeting) and representatives of the University Félix Houphouët-Boigny.

What emerged from the meeting is the highly ambitious objective of the Ivorian government to increase annual production to 1.9 million tonnes of milled rice of good quality by 2016, and 2.1 million tonnes of milled rice by 2018. At the projected 2018 level, the country would be able to start exporting rice. Rice development in the country is steered by an umbrella organization for the development of the rice sector, ONDR, headed by someone with a lot of private-sector experience, Mr Yacouba Dembélé.

ONDR has two main emphases: (1) technical support to rice production, and (2) technical support to value addition. Axis 1 comprises seed production, water management, mechanization of production and postharvest practices, improved crop management practices, and accompanying research and development activities. Axis 2 comprises marketing and labeling (‘Riz Côte d’Ivoire’), development of private-sector involvement, public–private partnerships, support to rice processing, and support to marketing of locally produced rice.

ONDR has divided Côte d’Ivoire into ‘rice pools’ of about 70 km2 each in the major rice-producing zones. The leader of each ‘pool’ is a rice processing unit operator. Funding for inputs (including seed) and purchase of paddy is channeled to farmers through these processing units. Rice millers steer the demand for seed and other inputs and pool paddy production. A combination of mini rice mills and medium-sized rice mills will be instrumental in pooling paddy rice from farmers. A total of 48 ‘pools’ have been identified with an average capacity of 37,500 tonnes of milled rice, giving a total of 1.8 Mt of milled rice. These ‘pools’ are distributed over 10 zones, each zone producing an average of 0.18 Mt of milled rice. The financing of the operators of ‘pools’ is done through banks, such as the West African Development Bank (BOAD) and the African Development Bank (AfDB). The performance of the ‘pools’ is monitored by ONDR agents, who are not involved in extension (which is left to ANADER); ONDR only monitors what is going on.

The estimated budget to realize these ambitions is about 477 billion FCFA (about US$ 1 billion), with funding coming from the private sector (64%), development partners (22%) and the state (14%).

Mr Dembélé highlighted the problem of lack of information with respect to rice knowledge and technology, in particular seed availability, and is keen to collaborate with AfricaRice and CNRA in that area.

The ‘pool’ approach is currently being tested with three rice mills in Gagnoa. The first results are very promising: these three mills have established contracts with farmers who deliver paddy with the help of ANADER, and contractual arrangements are being established between millers and farmers. An agreement on paddy price has been reached for the 2013 growing season and accepted by all rice farmers and millers in the entire Gagnoa region.

Mr Dembélé will talk about these exciting developments during the upcoming Third Africa Rice Congress in Yaoundé, Cameroon, scheduled for 21–24 October 2013. He left our meeting early to negotiate the purchase of rice mills with a capacity of 5 t per hour from India.