Green Super Rice, a project to boost Farmer Incomes and increase Food Security in Africa

By Treezer Michelle Atieno

“Rice is a primary crop in many African nations, yet the absence of reliable seed systems means most locally grown rice comes from seeds farmers save themselves. These seeds aren’t purified or screened, resulting in low-quality harvests. Consequently, countries, particularly those in West Africa, must import rice to meet their needs. Unfortunately, the challenges are worsened by global climate change.” said Dr. OMAR NDAW FAYE, a Senegalese rice breeder in an interview with Root of Science Media.

Dr. Omar Faye showing a Green Super Rice plantation. (Photo by Dr Omar)

In Episode 129 of the Root of the Science podcast, we had the pleasure of hosting Enock Chikava, Interim Director of Agriculture Development at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Chikava joined us to discuss the foundation’s strategies and partnerships aimed at accelerating agricultural development and climate resilience in Africa. One such partnership led to the Green Super Rice (GRS) project for Africa, an initiative that emerged years after its inception in China through the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

Dr. Omar Faye and members of Senegalese Agricultural Research Institute meet rice farmers in one of the Green Super Rice project areas in Senegal. (Photo by Dr Omar)

Africa currently spends over $5 billion importing rice, which is about 40% of the rice it needs. Rice consumption in Africa is going up by about 8% each year, while the amount grown only increases by less than 6% annually. This creates a gap of over 12 million metric tonnes. More than half of the 43 countries in Africa that grow rice end up importing it, with import rates ranging from 10% to 93%. For instance, Nigeria, which imports most rice in Africa, was projected to import 3.4 million metric tonnes in a year.

“Because of climate change and population growth, developing countries are now pressured to increase agricultural productivity by utilizing climate change adaptive crops like rice,” said Chikava. “Some high-yield modern varieties are still vulnerable to inclement weather, pests and disease.”

Enock Chikava, Interim Director of Agriculture Development at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Photo Credit by Gates Foundation)

“Rice farmers and smallholders in Africa increasingly face declining yields due to climate-related stress and biotic and abiotic factors. Gates Foundation in partnership with Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers (CGIAR), Senegalese Institute of Research and Agriculture and International Rice Research Institute through innovative and precision breeding tools, have developed GRS varieties to address yield reduction and yield stagnation.” said Dr.Omar Faye, the director of Senegalese Institute of Research and Agriculture.

Dr. Omar Faye, the Director of Senegalese Agricultural Research Institute. (Photo by Dr Omar)

Faye explained that GSR varieties are superior rice varieties that can produce high and stable yields under fewer inputs. They require less chemical fertilizers, pesticides and water, and are more tolerant to pests, diseases, drought, salinity changes, submergence and other abiotic or biotic stresses.

“Research and adoption of GRS varieties aim to help tackle the global burden of increasing populations, food production and farmer incomes with its 20% increase in yield across varying challenging growing conditions.The GSR project has successfully bred 78 varieties of GSR for 18 target countries across Asia and Africa. Since the project launch, over 6.12 million hectares have been used to grow GSR across the two continents with the hopes of supporting 30 million resource-deprived smallholder farmers.” said Faye.

Dr. Omar Faye leading the inspection of the growth of rice in Senegal. (Photo by Dr Omar)

Target countries in Africa include Rwanda, Uganda, Senegal, Mali and Nigeria. “In Nigeria, the project cultivated two varieties of rice at four demonstration sites during the 2022 dry season. Despite facing significant challenges from COVID-19 and political instability, these rice varieties yielded approximately 30% and 50% more than the popular local varieties. Subsequent local production trials of both new varieties also yielded positive results.” said Faye.

A Chinese expert and Nigerian farmers test new GSR rice varieties (Photo by Gates Foundation)

He added that a similar positive outcome occurred in Mali, where the GRS varieties led to successful harvests in 2023 along with the successful completion of the first hybrid rice seed production trial, creating a seed production model suited to the local environment.

The GRS research team has also developed an effective molecular breeding strategy which has been implemented to reduce the selection period of new varieties from 8-10 years to just 4-6 years. By using this method to produce multiple varieties of GSR, target countries can select plants that meet the country-specific agricultural requirements like a drought-prone country or region.

“In West Africa, six GSR varieties have been developed with high-yield potentials and strong tolerances to drought, iron toxicity and salinity. Roughly 14.5 metric tonnes of these seeds were distributed to local rice breeders. The project assisted with the training of around 500 African and Asian scientists, technicians and farmers in agricultural fields such as seed production, crop management and breeding. The hope is the GRS project will help increase countries’ rice capabilities and promote more sustainable growth in the future.” concluded Faye.

Deputy Director of Development Innovation and Partnership at the Gates Foundation China office Qinghua Zhu, Derector of Director of Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles (ISRA) in the Saint Louis Centre Omar Ndaw Faye, Executive Director of Root of Science Media Anne Chisa and other media professionals during Gates Foundation Annual Grand Challenge 2023 in Dakar, Senegal

Even though the Green Super Rice (GRS) project holds promise, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and its partners face limitations in directly reaching farmers in Africa. “We must collaborate with governments in what we refer to as hand-led inclusive agricultural transformation,” explained Chikava. “For example, we cannot prioritize Malawian farmers over the Malawian government; therefore, they must develop policies enabling the registration of these innovations in their country. This necessitates an accommodating regulatory environment, which many countries are already implementing. Additionally, within the country, a seed system is required to facilitate the dissemination of these innovations, ensuring they progress from breeder seed to certified seed and ultimately reach the farmer.”

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