Hybrid African rice to the rescue

Africa is the continent hardest hit by climate change and already struggles to feed its people. But a research centre in Cotonou, Benin, is developing a new variety of rice that it plans to distribute to local farmers, helping to alleviate food security concerns.

The Benin research was highlighted two weeks ago when PhD student Yonelle Moukoumbi (34) was awarded a L’Oréal/Unesco for Women in Science fellowship to fund her studies of the genetic diversities of new varieties of rice.

Fifteen fellowships are awarded every year to female scientists. Moukoumbi, a citizen of Gabon, is the first researcher from her country to receive this award. She is currently a student at the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin.

The Africa Rice Centre has developed a hybrid species of rice known as Nerica (New Rice for Africa) by crossing African and Asian rice varieties. African rice is a rugged plant, well adapted for local conditions, but has a poor yield. Asian rice has a much higher yield, but requires abundant water and is more susceptible to African pests and disease. But the Nerica rice combines the ruggedness of African plants with the Asian plants’ high yields.

Moukoumbi will analyse the genetic characteristics of different varieties of Nerica rice growing in lowland areas of Benin, where rainfall is “extremely irregular”. The Nerica rice is already successfully cultivated at higher altitudes. To ensure that only those Nerica varieties best adapted to the lowland areas are adopted by African farmers, Moukoumbi will identify which gene sequences are associated with high productivity and resistance to plant pathogens and drought. Once the molecule is developed, the rice will be distributed to farmers.

Moukoumbi’s native country, Gabon, imports all its rice, while Benin grows some rice, but meets most demand with imports. Although rice is a primary source of protein in West Africa, the low level of cultivation means that African states are forced to import rice at high cost. Improving rice production would go a long way to improving food security in Africa.

“It might not be cheaper than importing rice, but it is important for farmers to grow their own food,” she said. Congo, she said, was already using this technology and there was no reason why Benin could not use it with success.

“The administration of food is very bad. Sometimes food doesn’t go to where it is supposed to go,” she said. But if rice is distributed directly to subsistence farmers for cultivation, as the centre hopes to do, farmers’ families are more likely to have adequate food sources, and farmers are able to sell the crop to buy meat.

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