African Rice Shortage Remains, Despite Philanthropic Efforts

While philanthropists have become entranced by the possibility of a second Green Revolution for Africa, mechanisms for getting new rice varieties into the hands of farmers has not been developed and broader investment in the basic components of a well-functioning agrarian economy — roads, credit, and farmer education — are needed, the New York Times reports.

Developed with financing from wealthy countries and private foundations, the New Rices for Africa, or Nericas, are unpatented and freely available for cultivation by anyone, but a decade after their introduction, they have yet to be widely adopted by small farmers in West Africa. And the story isn't much different in the rest of the continent, said Joseph Devries, who heads seed development for the Rockefeller and Bill & Melinda Gates foundations' joint effort to jump-start farm productivity in Africa. "You have farmers who are very willing adopters of new technologies and want to raise yields, but are not getting access to seed, fertilizer, and small-scale irrigation."

While foreign aid for rural development programs has dropped dramatically over the past two decades, African governments generally have not made up the shortfall. Decent roads to move crops to market are scarce, as are storage facilities to preserve harvests and crop insurance to protect farmers from drought, flood, or bumper yields that cause prices to fall. Compounding the challenge, there are only two hundred thousand African farmers sowing Nericas on just 5 percent of the land where they make sense, says the Africa Rice Center, which developed the new strains in the mid-1990s.

Moreover, in places where the seeds have been introduced, initial gains have sometimes been lost because farmers could not get fresh seed, or their productivity declined when the new seeds were mixed with seeds from older varieties in storage sheds, fields, and on the floors of farmers' huts.

Still, alhough the new rices comprise only a small portion of what villagers in Hermakono, Guinea, cultivate, community health worker Aboubacar Oular� credited them with relieving the suffering of his sister-in-law's family. And, if they spread, he added, they could improve more lives. "They have brought change — not a lot, but some. It is not now as it was before."

Celia W. Dugger. "In Africa, Prosperity From Seeds Falls Short." New York Times 10/10/2007.