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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Welcoming the ‘ARICAs’: the next generation of rice varieties for Africa

Forty rice breeders from 27 African countries and from AfricaRice and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) met a few weeks ago in Kampala, Uganda to discuss progress made in evaluating elite rice lines across the African continent and to identify potential ‘champions’ that can make a difference to the lives of Africa’s rice producers and consumers. The meeting was organized from April 15-19, 2013 by AfricaRice in collaboration with the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) and the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NACCRI), Uganda.

Africa’s rice producers and consumers are facing a huge challenge: rice in Africa is grown in a bewildering diversity of growing environments, from the salty delta of the Senegal River to the windy highlands of Madagascar. Farmers often face large variability in soil and water availability within their fields and a range of biotic and abiotic stresses. There are also differences in terms of consumer preferences for rice, both between and within countries. To make matters worse, training and recruitment of rice breeders has been neglected across the continent since the 1990s.

Despite the difficulties, AfricaRice and partners have contributed to the release or adoption of a large number of rice varieties over the last decades. However, many rice farmers do not have access to new varieties that are better adapted to their growing environment and likely to sell well. This is certainly partly due to slow or non-existent varietal release procedures or non-functional seed systems in many African countries. However, there is also an urgent need to adopt a more systematic approach to rice breeding across the continent.

It is for those reasons that AfricaRice established, with support from the Government of Japan, a continent-wide Rice Breeding Task Force in 2010, with the explicit goal to accelerate rice varietal development through continent-wide varietal evaluation of nominated elite lines from AfricaRice and international and national partners. The meeting in Kampala was the fourth annual meeting of the Task Force. As of April 2013, the Task Force counts breeders from 30 African countries and from AfricaRice, IRRI and Cirad, all partners in the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP).

The Task Force uses a systematic, product-oriented and multi-environment testing (MET) approach involving a series of three consecutive trials with clear protocols and objectives. An overview of experimental sites of the Task Force is shown in the map (Figure 1).

figure1

Data collected at these sites are analyzed by breeders from the various countries and centrally at AfricaRice, enabling comprehensive genotype-by-environment (G×E) analyses. Farmers, millers, traders and other stakeholders participate in the trials. Members of national varietal release committees attend as well. The ultimate decision to nominate a particular variety for release in a country is made by the country’s rice breeder involved in the Task Force, based on evaluation of all data acquired before and during the MET phase.

Rice breeding lines are usually distinguished by a code linked to an experimental station, followed by numbers that refer to a particular cross. For example the well-known Sahel108 variety in Senegal is a variety developed at IRRI with the breeding code: IR 13240-108-2-2-3 and selected by AfricaRice and partners in Senegal. Breeding codes are really too long to remember and AfricaRice and partners have decided to assign new names to particularly promising breeding lines that result from Task Force activities: ARICAs, which stands for ‘Advanced RICes for Africa’.

ARICA varieties can be considered as the next generation of rice varieties for Africa, after the success of the ‘NEw RICes for Africa’ (NERICAs) developed in the 1990s and the first decade of this century. An estimated 800,000 hectares of NERICA varieties are currently grown across Africa.

For a breeding line to be nominated as an ARICA line it must have a clear advantage over the best check varieties in a region, backed by quality data over at least 3 seasons. Moreover at least one country should show interest in nominating the line for varietal release. The ultimate decision on naming an ARICA line is taken by AfricaRice, and is based on data gathered in the Task Force trials, and any other data gathered during the breeding process.

During the Kampala meeting five nominations for ARICA naming were examined by the Task Force and after intense discussions they were all accepted to become the first ARICA lines. ARICA1, 2 and 3 are suited for the rainfed lowland growth environment and are proposed for varietal release in Mali (ARICA1, ARICA2 and ARICA3) and Nigeria (ARICA2 and ARICA3). ARICA4 and ARICA5 are suited for the upland growth environment and have just been released in Uganda. All ARICAs out-yielded local checks including NERICAL-19 in the rainfed lowland environment and NERICA4 in the upland environment. In addition, ARICA3 has better grain quality, higher milling recovery, lower chalkiness and shorter cooking time than NERICAL-19.

Additional data about the performance of these ARICA lines will be gathered through the Task Force, allowing the ‘passport data’ of these lines to be updated over time. Through the Task Force, new ARICA lines will become available, backed by solid data. Unlike the NERICA varieties, they are not restricted to interspecific crosses. Any line that shows promise, regardless of its origin can become an ARICA line as long as the data that are collected are convincing. Of course the long and complex breeding codes are known for each ARICA line and the origin and pedigree of any ARICA line can, therefore, be easily traced.

Finding champions among breeding lines will always remain time consuming, but through the Task Force at least a very systematic, product-oriented approach is used that is already increasing the efficiency and efficacy of breeding efforts across the continent. However, for all of this to really succeed rice breeders should not only select lines but also use them as parent material to make crosses to develop lines that are really tailored to the needs of farmers and consumers in their country. Each region, country or market niche will have specific requirements in terms of traits that ideally need to be incorporated in a new variety. To really beat the challenge of Africa’s diversity we need many more, young, bright university students to become rice breeders and join hands in the Africa-wide Rice Breeding Task Force.