Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Fast-tracking farmers’ access to research innovation

In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), the time-lag between the development and the official release of a variety can be as long as 14 years due to the lack of functional variety release systems in most countries. Stakeholders have long urged for a change in this inefficient system, which limits farmers’ access to new varieties.

Involving farmers in testing improved varieties, known as participatory varietal selection (PVS) can help reduce this time-lag. In 2009, based on recommendations by AfricaRice and demand from farmers, the Government of Senegal passed a decree recognizing PVS as part of the official pre-release process.

The impact of this decision in Senegal was immediately felt as 16 new rice varieties selected by farmers were released for large-scale cultivation. Fifteen of these varieties were developed by the Africa Rice Center (AfricaRice), including 11 for irrigated system and four for upland (dryland) system.

Senegal is one of the biggest rice consumers in SSA, with an annual consumption of about 800,000 tonnes of rice per year. However, local production satisfies only 20% of the national demand for rice; the remaining 80% is met through imported rice at a cost of about USD 240 million.

In the wake of the crisis caused by soaring food prices, particularly rice, which led to several riots in the country, the Government launched an ambitious plan to make Senegal self-sufficient in rice by 2015. The sustainable intensification of irrigated rice production in the Senegal River valley, which accounts for almost 70 percent of national rice production, was selected as a major priority.

The irrigated systems have the highest yield potential because of better water control and reliability. Using technologies developed by AfricaRice and its partners, irrigated systems in Senegal and Mali have produced tremendous yield increases over the last 20 years from approximately 2 tonnes per hectare to nearly 6 t/ha on an average in 2008. However potential yields in these systems can be as high as 8 to 12 t/ha.

AfricaRice has developed high yielding short-duration varieties under the name of “Sahel” that are suitable for double cropping in rice irrigation schemes. Three Sahel varieties are grown in more than 70 percent of the Senegal River Valley.

To enable farmers to get the best out of improved varieties and enhance the sustainability of irrigated rice farming in Senegal, AfricaRice has introduced integrated rice crop management (IRM) options that include options for improved fertilizer, weed, and water management, efficient post-harvest technologies as well as decision-making tools. Studies have shown that even a partial adoption of these technologies by irrigated rice farmers has resulted in 60% increase in farm yields and 85% increase in profits.

A rice thresher, referred to as ASI, was developed with several partners, based on a prototype from IRRI to reduce post-harvest crop losses from manual threshing to help irrigated rice farmers, particularly women. Since its commercial release in 1997, ASI has become the most widely used thresher in the Senegal River Valley with more than 80% adoption among those exposed to the technology. Its contribution was recognized in 2003 when the President of Senegal presented the ASI team with his special prize for science research.