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One of the reasons why agriculture in Africa has been lagging behind the rest of the world is because small-scale farmers are often reluctant to adopt better but unfamiliar practices. How can this cycle be broken? This article looks at two contrasting responses to adaptation – one in Ghana and one in Benin – and the impact they have produced.
Rice has replaced maize as the favourite staple in many West African countries, but low crop yields mean that a substantial volume of the grain has to be imported at the cost of billions of dollars.
The native variety of rice is perfectly adapted to the African environment and is both drought- and pest- resistant, but yields are typically low because of the structure of the plant. The Asian variety of rice, however, enjoys higher yields, but is not suited to the African environment.
Scientists at the Africa Rice Centre developed a hybrid of African and Asian rice varieties and came up with New Rice for Africa (NERICA), which combined the best aspects of each variety.
Improvements were dramatic: grain head size increased from 100 grains per head to 400; yield per hectare rose from 1 to 2.5 tonnes (reaching 5 tonnes with fertilizer use); the protein content increased; and the new plants were taller, making for easier harvesting.
During the NERICA Adoption project, which ran from 2005 to 2010, over 200,000 hectares of land in various African countries were sown with seeds from NERICA.
Yet Ghana has found it difficult to promote the adoption of NERICA. It is estimated that at the end of adoption project, only 1.1% of total paddy rice in harvested areas had been cultivated using the NERICA seed.
How to explain this abysmally low adoption of a high-yielding variety of a food crop that has become the premier provider of calories in the country? “There are several reasons, but perhaps the most significant one is that the model used to multiply and distribute seeds to farmers is flawed,” says Francis Mulangu, Agriculture Economist with the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET) and one of the authors of a recently released set of five country reports, Promoting Sustainable Rural Development and Transformation in Africa.
“The Ghana seed development system has always relied on a participatory plant-breeding system,” he says. “This system relies on farmers’ own evaluations of new varieties based on local knowledge and preferences. This in turn enables public research systems to fine-tune new seeds to existing conditions.
“In addition, this also results in arrangements through which farmers gain access to unreleased varieties, with which they experiment and distribute through their own networks.”
However, Mulangu points out, the NERICA seed multiplication and distribution is designed to ensure that farmers purchase seeds rather than multiply and distribute them. “This framework of property rights in commercial seeds, designed to make NERICA sustainable, has devalued farmers’ knowledge and their contribution to the adaptation of the NERICA seed – especially since it is not part of the rice farmer’s culture to purchase seeds every year,” Mulangu says.
As a result of this tension, he says, the involvement of private actors in the NERICA seed sector has been limited. The adoption of improved seeds has also been severely hampered because farmers were not given the opportunity to try out the seeds and switch to a culture of buying new seeds every year as opposed to using older generation ones.
The net result of this failure to adapt to better practice has been the very low take-up of NERICA cultivation in Ghana.
In stark contrast, there has been an enthusiastic embrace of new practices in neighbouring Benin also, as it happens, involving rice. In this case, it is about a new rice parboiling system, called GEM, which was set up by the African Development Bank.
It is making a tremendous difference to the lives of the women who are involved in the process of parboiling: processing time is shorter and less of a drudgery, and the women are not exposed to heat burns normally associated with this activity.
It is also making a significant difference to their incomes and quality of life. Previously, the women were processing around 120 kg of paddy rice per session; now they can process 300-400 kg and plan to raise this to a ton.
The quality of the rice is now on par with premium imported rice and, the women report, traders are buying up all their rice and also giving them a better deal. They say this not only allows them to pay their children’s school fees, but also gives them a measure of independence from their husbands.
The new system succeeded because it was accompanied by a targeted training system that involved consultations with the women and a series of videos to help spread the message further. Rice producers who attended screenings became more willing to sell rice to women on credit.
Two different approaches to adaptation – one a spectacular success, the other less so. Both provide valuable lessons as Africa continues on its quest for agricultural transformation.
Anver Versi is Director of Communications and External Relations at the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), an Accra-based Pan-African economic policy institute that helps governments and businesses deliver economic transformation. Prior to joining ACET, Versi was Editor-in-Chief of the London-based pan-African business monthlies, African Business and African Banker. The Kenya-born Versi also regularly appears on BBC TV and Radio.