Improving Rice Production in Africa

Published on 28th May 2012

The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) based in Nairobi has signed a license agreement with Japan Tobacco (JT) of Japan for the use of JT's transformation technology to develop new rice varieties for use by smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), in countries such as Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Ghana and Uganda. The initiative, known as the Nitrogen Use Efficient Water Use Efficient and Salt Tolerant (NEWEST) Rice Project, seeks to address some of the major constraints that face rice production in SSA. The goal of the project is to develop and disseminate farmer preferred and locally adapted rice varieties with enhanced nitrogen-use efficiency, water-use efficiency and salt tolerance. JT will offer the technology free of charge to the AATF with an aim of supporting humanitarian aid projects.

"The slow growth in domestic rice production has been attributed to low yields being achieved by rice farmers in SSA," says Dr Denis Kyetere, the Executive Director of AATF.

"Several factors are responsible for the low rice production. However, nitrogen deficiency and drought have been cited as leading constraints to upland rice production, while high salinity is increasingly becoming a major problem in many rice growing areas of Africa," he continued.

Rice is an important staple food and a commodity of strategic significance across much of Africa. Driven by changing food preferences in the urban and rural areas and compounded by high population growth rates and rapid urbanisation, rice consumption in SSA has been growing by 6 percent per annum over the years, more than double the rate of population growth.

However, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the area under rice production in SSA has stagnated at about 8 million hectares, producing about 14.5 million tonnes per year against an annual consumption of 21 million tonnes. These production and consumption trends imply a production deficit of about 6.5 million tonnes per year valued at US$ 1.7 billion that is imported annually. Insufficient rice production affects the wellbeing of over 20 million smallholder farmers in SSA who depend on rice as their main food.

"The license will enable the project to utilise our plant transformation technology for monocot species, PureIntro®, developing and deploying the nitrogen efficient, water efficient, and salt tolerant rice products, free of royalties," says Mr Masamichi Terabatake, JT's Chief Strategy Officer.

JT's plant biotechnology is independently managed from its core businesses including tobacco and food.

PureIntro® is an agrobacterium-mediated plant transformation technology that is recognised worldwide as de facto standard for monocot transformation. The technology reduces development costs and time. PureIntro® has been licensed by JT to more than 50 private and public entities worldwide for numerous monocots including maize, rice, wheat, barley, sorghum, sugarcane, switchgrass, miscanthus, forage and turf.

"The agreement will also allow AATF to sub-license the transformed materials to other public institutions working on the project. This will enable them to field test the materials in different ecologies in SSA," Mr. Terabatake continues. The institutions will have the freedom to breed new rice varieties, using the transformed materials as the source of the desired traits.

The NEWEST Rice for Africa Project was launched by AATF in 2008. The initiative aims to transform some varieties of the New Rice for Africa (NERICA) to improve their productivity in nitrogen-poor soils, drought prone regions and in fields that have become excessively salty over time. The goal is to provide smallholder rice farmers with higher yielding varieties that are well adapted to the upland and lowland rice-growing areas in Africa.

Other partners in this private public partnership include Arcadia Biosciences who are providing access to traits that confer nitrogen use efficiency, water use efficiency and salt tolerance. The University of California is donating required plant transformation technologies. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the national agricultural research institutes of Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda will conduct the necessary field trials to test the performance of the new varieties. The project is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Kingdom's Department for International Development (DFID), and will initially be implemented over a 10-year period.

The new varieties developed under the NEWEST Rice Project are anticipated to increase rice yields, improve food security and household income for up to 20 million smallholder farmers and their families in SSA and reduce Africa's dependence upon imported rice.

AATF currently works in ten countries in SSA and facilitates access and delivery of affordable agricultural technologies for use by smallholder farmers. Priority areas for the Foundation include addressing targeted agricultural constraints facing these farmers which include the impact of climate change on agriculture; pest management; soil management; nutrient enhancement in foods; improved breeding methods; and mechanisation. These are addressed through the access, development and deployment of accessible, transferable, adaptable and proven technologies.

In addition to the NEWEST Rice Project, other projects that AATF participates in include Striga control in maize, development of insect resistant cowpea, improvement of banana for resistance to banana bacterial wilt, biological control of aflatoxin, and drought tolerance and insect resistance in maize, for use by smallholder farmers in SSA.

Courtesy: AATF Japan Tobacco Inc.

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