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February 23, 2012

The potential of neglected ancient African rice varieties

In Africa the rice cultivars used in the experimental and smallholder farming initiatives are imported, commercial and, in some cases, specially adapted commercial cultivars.

This is obviously to the advantage of the providers of the seeds and makes farmers ever dependent on their supplies and their prices. It leaves both the smallholder farmers and the rural commercial farmers with little alternative in case the supply chain breaks down.

In many cases too, the seeds are provided on a ‘one- off’ basis and the resulting grain from the fields cannot be readily used to plant next year’s crop; thus, again, locking the farmers in a vicious cycle.

Research and use of traditional varieties have, as usual been abandoned in favor of the varieties proposed by the ‘generous’ foreign donors.

The PR, or rather propaganda machine, of the suppliers of these varieties and cultivars is also very good. The supplier ensures that everybody comes under the erroneous belief that these seeds are the alpha and omega of farming and that nothing else will assist our farmers in attaining crop and food security.

To most of the world, rice connotes Asia and the vast agriculture of Far Eastern river deltas. Indeed, humanity’s second major crop is from Asia, and 90 percent of it, the main source of calories for 2.7 billion people, is grown there.

But rice is also African.

A different species has been cultivated in West Africa for at least 1,500 years. Some African countries have, since ancient times, been just as rice-oriented as any Asian one. For all that, however, almost no one else has ever heard of their species.

Like their counterparts in the Far East, Africa’s ancient rice farmers selected a remarkable range of cultivars suited to many types of habitats.

They produced ‘floating’ varieties (for growing in deep water), weakly and strongly photoperiod-sensitive types (for growing in different latitudes and seasons), swamp and upland cultivars (for growing under irrigated and rain-fed conditions, respectively), and early and late-maturing types.

And, for all of these, they selected forms with various seed characteristics.

Although modern efforts to expand rice production in Africa have largely ignored this indigenous heritage, African rice is still cultivated in West Africa, especially in remote districts. There, until recently, much of it was reserved as a special luxury food for chiefs and religious rituals.

Today, however, farms that grow substantial stands of African rice are few.

The area of most intense cultivation are the ‘floating fields’ on the Sokoto fadamas (floodplains) of Nigeria and the Niger River’s inland delta in Mali. However, the crop is also widely, if thinly, spread in Sierra Leone and neighboring areas, as well as in the hills that straddle the Ghana-Togo border.

From one point of view, there seem to be good reasons for abandoning this food of the forebears. In most locations, farmers prefer the foreign rice because it yields better and scatters less of its seed on the ground.

The situation is quite different where rice is grown strictly for localized, subsistence, or specialty use. There, yield, brittleness, color, or international interest can be unimportant. Indeed, small-scale farmers often prefer African rice. They like the grain’s taste and aroma, and even its reddish appearance. To some people traditional rituals are meaningless unless the ancient grain is employed.

Also, they find the plant easy to produce: its fast growth and spreading canopy help suppress weeds and it generally resists local diseases and pests by itself.

Moreover, these are not the only advantages.

Compared to its Asian cousin, African rice is better at tolerating fluctuating water depths, excessive iron, low levels of management, infertile soils, harsh climates, and late planting (a valued feature because in West Africa’s erratic climate the rains are often tardy).

Also, there are some types that mature much quicker than common rice. Planted out in emergencies when food stocks are getting low, these can
save lives.

 What actually happens in the future to this interesting African crop will depend on individual initiatives, most of them within Africa itself.

Part of the problem is its lack of prestige. Everywhere, consumers have fallen in love with processed Asian rice.

If someone now makes a processed (that is, parboiled) product out of African rice, that alone may return it to high favor. Indeed, it may rise to become a gourmet food of particular interest because of its ancient and historic heritage.

Part of the problem, also, is lack of supply.

Thus, if such specialty markets develop, it seems likely that African rice will survive as a commercial crop.

Then, with selection and breeding, its various cultivars can almost certainly be made to compete with Asian rice in most African locations. There is evidence, for example, that certain types already match the productivity of Asian rice, and in the yield figures there is
considerable overlap between the best African and the poorer Asian ones. This is remarkable considering the 5,000 years of intense effort that has been invested in improving Asian rice.

Even if the local rice never thrives as a commercial crop, it will likely continue as a subsistence crop in Africa.

Even in its current neglected form the plant has something to offer, but just a small amount of support, promotion, and practical research seems likely to bring dramatic improvements.

The world’s rice research is overwhelmingly focused on Asian rice, but the remarkable developments now emerging from laboratories may bring big advances to African rice, on the side.

Molecular biologists have recently ‘marked’ the locations on rice chromosomes where genes for certain genetic attributes are carried. The ability to determine whether a desired gene is present or absent in any sample bestows enormous power.

It can, for instance, help find a desired gene in wild as well as cultivated species. It can find a ‘hidden’ gene in a given plant where the gene’s outward effects are masked, and it vastly simplifies the sorting of thousands of crossbred specimens, something that formerly could take a lifetime of tedious effort.

A particular strength of this new work is that breeders can now work with very young seedlings. In other words, they can tell whether a certain gene is present without waiting months for the plant to mature. This can cut the time needed to breed a new variety, usually 10-12 seasons, in half.

Although the genomes (chromosome sets) of both African and Asian rice have been mapped, the rest of the effort has so far been solely on Asian rice. Nonetheless, most results from Asian rice are likely to be easily transferable. The genome is relatively small, containing only a tenth as much DNA as maize.

Several teams have managed to regenerate fertile rice plants from protoplasts -cells from which the wall has been removed. This makes it even easier to fiddle with rice genes.

Already, DNA from bacteria has been transferred into rice protoplasts. Mature plants, grown from these protoplasts, have transmitted the implanted DNA to their offspring.

At least two close relatives of African rice are regularly gathered for food, often in sufficient abundance to appear in the markets.

Orza barthii (Oryza breviligulata) is an annual that commonly occurs in seasonally flooded areas from Mauritania to Tanzania and from the Sudan to Botswana. It is the wild progenitor of cultivated African rice. It can form meadows in inundated areas. Its grain falls off so easily that it must be carefully collected by hand. (People use a basket or calabash, and sometimes they tie the stalks in knots to make harvesting easier.) It tastes good and is sometimes sold in markets.

However, wherever rice is cultivated, this plant is regarded mostly as a weed to be eradicated. Certain strains of this species are immune to bacterial blight of rice (Xanthomonas), which could give them a valuable future as genetic resources.

Oryza longistaminata is a common wild rice found throughout tropical Africa as far south as Namibia and Transvaal, as well as Madagascar. Unlike the other species, it is a perennial with rhizomes.

It is tall and out crossing. It usually grows in creeks and drainage canals and reproduces by suckers, often setting few seeds. Nonetheless, these meager grains are sought in times of shortage.

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