Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Ebola leads to hunger in Africa’s rice belt


It was Christmas Eve, but the streets of Freetown – the capital of Sierra Leone –were eerily silent. Families and friends did not meet for the traditional dinner to feast on Jollof Rice, a national dish that is served in all the ceremonies across the country.

In December 2014, the government of Sierra Leone banned all public celebrations to prevent the further spread of Ebola in the worst-affected country.  Similarly, Guinea – the country where the latest Ebola crisis began – banned holiday gatherings during Christmas and New Year.

But even before this drastic step was taken, people living in the countries hit hardest by the deadly virus – Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea –had little to cheer about. Although there was a glimmer of hope for an end in sight to the Ebola epidemic, these countries were reported to be on the brink of a major food crisis.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) revealed in December that the Ebola outbreak had left nearly half a million people in the three countries “severely food insecure”: 120,000 in Sierra Leone, 170,000 in Liberia and 230,000 in Guinea.

The organizations warned that this number could double to one million by March 2015 unless urgent measures are taken to significantly enhance access to food and safeguard crop and livestock production in these countries, which have a very large rural agricultural sector.

The crisis has been further aggravated because these countries were trying to recover from a tragic past (prolonged civil war in both Liberia and Sierra Leone and military rule in Guinea), when Ebola struck.

Shock to food and agricultural sectors

FAO and WFP stated that the Ebola epidemic has caused a significant shock to the food and agriculture sectors in the affected countries, where two thirds of the population depend on agriculture for their livelihood. A number of interrelated factors, including quarantines, disruptions in transport and trade, and rising food prices are triggering the food crisis.

Experts participating in the Global Rice Market and Trade Summit organized by International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Bangkok, Thailand in October 2014, remarked that there was a noticeable rise in the local rice prices in the affected countries, although the Ebola crisis is not expected to have a major impact on the global rice market.

Many farmers have abandoned their fields and harvests for fear of the disease. In Sierra Leone, for instance, it is reported that up to 40% of farms were abandoned in the worst affected areas.

Impacts on the rice sector

Rice is the most important staple in the three countries and its price and accessibility directly influence social stability. Annual per capita consumption of rice (about 100 kg) is amongst the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. However, all the three countries are net importers of rice as demand is much higher than local production.

The promotion of domestic rice production is therefore a key element in the national rice development strategy (NRDS) developed by each of these countries under the Coalition for African Rice Development (CARD) framework.

The national programs of these countries are involved in a large number of joint projects with Africa Rice Center  (AfricaRice) and have identified “Rice Sector Development Hubs,” a mechanism introduced by AfricaRice across sub-Saharan Africa to concentrate R&D efforts and connect partners along the rice value chain to achieve greater impact.

Since the last few years, AfricaRice has been providing targeted support to Liberia and Sierra Leone at their request to revive their rice sectors, under the umbrella of the World Bank-funded West Africa Agricultural Productivity Program (WAAPP).

The main focus of this support is to make improved seed and technologies available to farmers, enhance rice quality and develop a critical mass of scientists, technicians, extension workers and seed producers.

However, the Ebola crisis threatens to undo the progress made in all these areas.
According to FAO, the 2014 rice production is expected to reduce by 12% in Liberia, 8% in Sierra Leone and 4% in Guinea.  But there are big disparities within the region: production is down by 20% in Liberia’s Lofa district– which is the main rice-producing region and is considered as Liberia’s breadbasket – and by 17% in the hardest hit parts of Sierra Leone.

“The Ebola outbreak in Liberia is a complete setback to our achievements,” said AfricaRice scientist Inoussa Akintayo, who is coordinating an emergency rice project in Lofa and Bong districts in Liberia supported by the World Bank.

In August 2014 for reasons of safety, AfricaRice Management decided to pull out its regional and international researchers from Liberia and Sierra Leone. “This has affected the implementation of the planned WAAPP activities,” said AfricaRice scientist Bert Meertens, who is assisting the Sierra Leone Agricultural Research Institute in WAAPP activities.

Call for urgent action

In addition to addressing the immediate priority of Ebola control, FAO and WFP have called for urgent action to re-establish the farming system in the three countries. Measures should enable most vulnerable people to access agricultural inputs, such as seeds and fertilizers and adopt improved technology to address labor shortages.

AfricaRice is actively involved in discussing and planning strategies to make improved rice seed available to farmers with strong support from donors, such as the Government of Japan, the African Development Bank, FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Bank among others, as well as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). These activities are part of the overall effort to support the Ebola-hit countries on the road to economic recovery and growth. 

Meanwhile, remembering the quiet heroism of scientists in these countries, AfricaRice economist Ali Toure who was working in Sierra Leone, remarked, “We are praying for the safety of our brave colleagues, who are continuing their work under very difficult and even dangerous situations.”

By the end of 2014, nearly 8,000 deaths from Ebola had been reported in the three countries. The World Bank estimates the regional economic toll could reach US$32 billion by the end of 2015.

About the author :  Savitri Mohapatra is the head of Marketing and Communications at AfricaRice.

AfricaRice is one of the 15 international agricultural research Centers that are members of the CGIAR Consortium. It is also an intergovernmental association of African member countries. For more information, visiti www.africarice.org and www.cgiar.org.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Optimizing South-South collaboration in rice mechanization

The concluding workshop for the project on “South-South Collaboration in Rice Mechanization,” funded by the European Union through the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), was held, 21-23 January 2015, at the Africa Rice Center (AfricaRice) in Cotonou, Benin. The project is coordinated by AfricaRice in close partnership with the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

Thirty-two international and national rice mechanization experts from the public and private sectors, including 20 participants from 13 African countries attended. The workshop provided an opportunity to share information on the following areas: the achievements of the project; AfricaRice R&D activities on mechanization; rice mechanization in Africa; experience in importing agricultural machinery to Africa; the Rice Mechanization Platform; standardization and certification; and public-private partnership. 

The workshop highlighted the following achievements of the project:
  • An Africa-wide Rice Mechanization Task Force has been set up to assess the status of mechanization within each country, introduce and test equipment for adoption and enhance local capacity for manufacturing
  • Local artisans from several countries have been trained in the fabrication of some equipment and out-scaling has already started. For example, Nigeria aims to produce at least 1000 units of the ASI thresher. 
  • The virtual South-South collaboration platform on rice mechanization has been created.
  • African mechanization experts have visited Brazil and Thailand and have greatly benefited from their interactions with stakeholders along the rice value chains in these countries. 

During the closing workshop, participants visited the AfricaRice mechanization workshop and the Songhai Center’s equipment unit in Porto Novo, Benin. The last day was spent deliberating on how to improve the level and quality of rice mechanization in Africa and future collaboration between Africa, Latin America and Asia as well as on how to sustain the Africa-wide Rice Mechanization Task Force and the virtual knowledge-sharing platform. The recommendations emphasized the need to go beyond needs assessment to out-scaling by raising awareness and through marketing, quality assurance and training.

Monday, January 5, 2015

2015 AfricaRice Science Week & GRiSP-Africa Forum

The annual review, reflection and planning event of AfricaRice and partners on rice research and development is set for 9-13 February 2015 at its temporary Headquarters in Cotonou, Benin. 

At least 200 international and national rice research and development partners from the public and private sectors, including representatives of national research and extension programs of 28 African countries are expected to participate in this event. 

The AfricaRice Science Week will once more serve as the Africa-Forum of the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP), a CGIAR Research Program on rice.

The main objectives of the AfricaRice Science Week & GRiSP-Africa Forum are the following:

  • Carry out effective and efficient planning of research-for-development (R4D) activities in 2015 with partners
  • Strengthen the operationalization of the Rice Sector Development Hub teams in each of the 25 countries through communities of practice and other support mechanisms
  • Review the Country and Hub Vision and Workplans for each of the 25 countries in particular matching the visions with business ideas and dissemination of ‘rice scalable technologies’

The week’s program is designed to achieve the above objectives and optimize collaboration in rice science and dissemination of rice scalable technologies.