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Researchers unveil agri-tech plan to boost rice production

By , Africa editor
Africa , 05 Jul 2023
Dr Venuprasad Ramaiah, head of the International Rice Greenbank at IRRI.
Dr Venuprasad Ramaiah, head of the International Rice Greenbank at IRRI.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and AfricaRice have unveiled an ambitious plan to ensure enough rice is produced to satisfy the growing demand for the staple in Africa and Asia.

Using agri-tech, the two non-profit agriculture research centres aim to end hunger among Africans and Asians that depend on rice.

The research centres also want to improve farmers' and consumers' health and welfare, promote environmental sustainability, and support the empowerment of women and youth in the rice industry.

The IRRI is based in the Philippines, while AfricaRice Center is headquartered in Côte d'Ivoire.

Both non-profit entities were recently awarded the Milken-Motsepe Prize in Agritech in the US.

Annually, the Patrice Motsepe Foundation and the US-based Milken Institute hold their flagship agri-tech competition.

The Milken-Motsepe Prize in Agritech seeks to incentivise scalable agricultural technology solutions for problems faced by farmers on small to medium-sized farms in Africa.

The 2023 edition of the competition placed the IRRI-AfricaRice team in third place for their biotech solution to help rice farmers protect their crops from flooding.

The IRRI-AfricaRice team developed new flood-tolerant rice varieties using modern breeding technologies with the SUB1 gene.

The team intends to increase this yield advantage further by adding a complementary gene called SUB2, which could extend the survival rate of these varieties under longer flooding durations.

In an interview with ITWeb Africa, Dr Venuprasad Ramaiah, head of the International Rice Greenbank at IRRI, says: “Our mission is to abolish poverty and hunger among people that depend on rice-based systems.”

Rice is among the top three most cultivated crops worldwide.

Africa, in particular, relies heavily on the crop, making it one of the biggest rice importers.

Nonetheless, Ramaiah says the rainfed lowland ecosystem occupies 40 per cent of total rice farm area in Africa, the highest among all rice-growing ecosystems.

As a result, he says flooding is a frequent concern in these areas, affecting productivity, especially in the past decade, and is anticipated to increase in the coming years with climate change.

To address the situation, Ramaiah said a solution was required.

He explains: “Until recently, no flood-tolerant rice varieties were cultivated in Africa. Because of that, farmers suffered enormous losses due to floods.

"Nigeria, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Madagascar were among the most flood-prone countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Our technology was officially released for cultivation in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and the Gambia".

Ramaiah adds:"The technology is spreading well in Nigeria, with the seeds being distributed and multiplied to over 30,000 farmers.

“The demand is growing due to more frequent floods, which is an effect of climate change.

"The government of Nigeria invested considerable resources to multiply and distribute the seeds to affected communities.”

The IRRI-AfricaRice team is now anticipating higher adoption rate of its technology in Africa and Asia.

“Currently, only three countries in West Africa have benefitted from our work, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and the Gambia," Ramaiah tells ITWeb Africa.

'We need to further scale-up adoption of this technology to reach more farmers in those countries.

“We need to expand to other countries where flooding is a serious problem, Madagascar and Tanzania. Growth is also expected in developing newer and better products (i.e. much higher-yielding and stress-tolerant rice varieties) to better serve the farmers.”

Despite the enthusiasm for success, Ramaiah says the team is mindful of obstacles ahead as not-for-profit organisations, the greatest threat is funding.

He explains: “We are fully dependent on funding from donors to succeed in our mission.

"Funding support for this work is very minimal, and it is not stable. It will affect our mission of reaching more needy farmers.”

In that regard, the IRRI-AfricaRice team says it is banking on the $150 000 prize money it collected from the agri-tech competition.

“I believe we have access to new resources and partners that will help us to find ways to further contribute to our mission," says Ramaiah.

"Through the award, we’ll be able to take flood-tolerance work in rice further.

“The current flood-tolerant rice variety released in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa can survive for over two weeks under complete submergence, usually caused by flash floods.

"Current farmers' varieties die after just one week of being submerged in water.”

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