By Sharon Atieno

Though rice is a strategic food crop in Africa, there remains a big gap in production and consumption. So wide is this gap, that Africa imports more than 13 million tons of rice per year to meet the consumption demand.

“This deficit has to be addressed by increasing production and if it has to be done, we have to include technology. Hybrid rice technologies offer significant yield gains which is important in bridging this gap,” Dr. Kayode A. Sanni, Director of the Alliance for Hybrid Rice in Africa (AHyRA), African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) said .

He was speaking during the fifth African Conference for Science Journalists hosted by Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA).

Noting that seed is the basis for improvement of productivity, he said the technology could build agribusiness which would attract the private seed sector investment- both small, medium and large seed companies into the business of rice seed in Africa.

“In addition to that, hybrid crop model has been used historically to leverage private sector involvement in other agricultural crops such as maize,” Dr. Sanni stated.

He noted that already there are ongoing hybrid rice efforts in the country from governments, local non-governmental organizations, private seed companies and even international organizations. So far, over 15 different high yielding hybrids have been produced in at least seven countries, Dr. Sanni said.

“These interventions have moved rice production to more than 10 tons per hectare, some of the hybrid are yielding more than 12 tons per hectare,” he said.

Despite the potential that hybrid rice has in Africa, there are still challenges facing its full implementation including slow adoption. According to Dr. Sanni, this has been because of the low awareness among rice farmers as they are used to reusing their grains which is affecting their productivity.

The release of varieties is also slow, he said, adding that in some countries the cost of release is very expensive for breeders while in some cases variety release meetings do not hold hindering access to the new varieties by farmers.

Additionally, the high cost of production of hybrid rice is also a concern. This high cost, Dr. Sanni suggested can be mitigated by building capacity and improving productivity of the seed that is being produced.

Also, he decried the low level of private sector involvement in rice seed productions as a result of the inbred nature of rice, noting that the rarity of farmers purchasing seed from seed companies is demoralizing the private sector leading to low investment.

Climate change is also a challenge as it is resulting in pests and diseases that is affecting crops for example, golden apple snail in Kenya which is affecting rice producing areas.

Besides, Dr. Sanni added there is low human and parental line capacity. “Low capacity in parental line can make African farmers and private seed companies and small and medium sized enterprises to be exploited,” he stated.

Through AHyRA, Dr. Sanni said, “We are targeting that in the next 10 years, we will increase the land size for production of rice to 3.3 million hectare which will be mainly grown in Eastern Africa. Out of this, 40% (1.4 million hectare) will be hybrid rice.”

He noted that this will not only benefit farmers financially, but it will also lead to rice self-sufficiency and food security in general.

Currently, only three countries (Tanzania, Mali and Madagascar) in Africa are close to achieving rice self-sufficiency, the rest are overly dependent on imports.