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June 25, 2018

Farewell to irrigation: Scientists develop prolific, rainfed rice variety

Workers harvest the rain-fed variety that is in its second trial at Kalro's farm in Alupe, Busia county
Workers harvest the rain-fed variety that is in its second trial at Kalro's farm in Alupe, Busia county

Scientists have developed a new hybrid rice variety that is rainfed and does not need to be irrigated.

Unlike the conventional rice that is grown under irrigation, the new variety adapts well in the upland areas, where maize is also grown.

John Kimani, a rice breeder at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation and Kalro-Mwea Centre director, said the new hybrid variety has preferred traits, such as long grains, pleasant aroma, early maturing and resistance to the devastating rice blast disease. 

“Rice blast disease has been a major challenge to rice farmers and can cause up to 80 per cent yield loss,” he said.

“In 2008, there was a massive outbreak of rice blast, where some farmers had a total crop failure. In normal cases, it can cause anything between 60-100 per cent loss, and it is a very serious threat to rice production in Kenya.”

Kimani was speaking during a field visit to the Kalro farm in Alupe, Busia county, where they were harvesting the upland rice variety that is in the second trial.

The director said the upland rice takes 120 days to mature, compared to the conventional varieties that mature within 140-170 days. 

He said Kalro is developing new rice varieties to increase rice production to meet the currently high demand for rice. It is doing so in partnership with the Africa Agriculture Technology Foundation and Maseno University.



Dr Johnson Irungu, director of crops in the Agriculture ministry, said rice consumption in Kenya is growing at a high rate since 2008. It currently stands at 12 per cent, while maize, the staple food, is at one per cent and wheat at three per cent.

This eating pattern, the director said, is due to rapid urbanisation, need to save on energy for cooking and demographic changes.

“Rice consumption in the country is growing at a very high rate because of better lifestyles. This means better incomes, and the population, especially in the rural areas, has embraced rice because it is easy to cook and is friendly food. These factors have led to the sharp rise in consumption,” the rice breeder said.

Kenya produces 140,000 metric tonnes per year, against a consumption rate of 540,000-600,000 metric tonnes per year. The deficit of about 75 per cent is imported from neighbouring countries, mostly Pakistan.

Kimani said thanks to the many hybrid varieties that have been developed, production has almost doubled from 54,000 metric tonnes per year since 2008.

“It means we have been able to double production in 10 years. Vision 2030 projects that Kenya will be able to feed her 48 million population without importing, as has always been the case. The challenge is that the realised yield currently is about three tonnes per hectare for the irrigated lands, but there is room to go up to seven tonnes per hectare. Kenya has a potential of producing up to 12 tonnes per hectare. We are now bridging the realisable yield from three tonnes to seven tonnes before working on the potential,” Kimani said.

He said when you compare rice and maize crop, the cost of production for rice is more per any given unit, unlike maize. The other advantage is that maize takes double the period it takes for rice to mature. Rice takes 120 days, while maize, especially the highland maize variety, takes seven months.

“In terms of crop cycle, we can have two crops per year for rice, while maize is one crop only. Season wise, rice production is better than maize. Even the cost of rice is higher than maize.

The other advantage is that the bailing of the rice straws, which used to go to waste, has a huge multimillion-shilling business, where the youth have taken up to support the livestock sector. So rice has more opportunity,” Kimani said.



Dr Sanni Kayode, a rice breeder and AATF rice project manager, said this is the first hybrid rice that has been developed by Africans in Africa and for Africans.

“It will soon be commercialised and this is an important factor towards realising food security in the continent. This is also important, because we have deficiency in rice and the crop is becoming of strategic and economic importance in Africa,” he said.

Kayode said Africa has a rice deficiency of about 12 million metric tonnes. Production is at about 14 million metric tonnes, against a consumption rate of about 26 million metric tonnes annually. The deficit, he said, is imported at a cost of close to $5 billion (Sh500 billion) every year, which is a huge investment for Africa.

The manager said rice productivity in Africa is very low, which is one of the main challenges facing rice farmers. Globally, the average rice productivity is 4.3 tonnes per hectare, while in Africa, the average is about 2 tonnes per hectare.

He said, “We need to improve productivity to increase production. For this to happen, we need to look at farmers’ interests. Breeders have proven that hybrid rice can produce better then the conventional rice varieties,” Kayode said.

Dr Phoebe Sikuku, a rice researcher at Maseno University, said lack of high-yielding varieties that are drought-tolerant is also a problem. This is because most of the agriculture ecological zones are prone to water deficit.

“We are optimistic that once the research on the variety is done, farmers can access the seeds and increase productivity at the farm. Our aim is to make Kenya sufficient in rice productivity,” she said.

Kayode also cited a lack of good seed systems in rice, saying many seed companies are not interested in investing in rice seeds. This, he said, is affecting the quality of seeds available to farmers in the market.

“This makes it difficult for rice produced in Africa to compete with global production in terms of profitability and quality. These are some of the issues the project is taking care of. We want seed companies to see the profitability and productivity of the hybrid rice seeds and invest. This will help our farmers access quality seeds that can help them produce premium price rice, which can compete with the imported one,” Kayode said.



He said if farmers adopt the upland rice, one can harvest 140 to 200 bags of 50kg per hectare from the current harvest of about 80 50kg bags per hectare.

“Our estimates have shown us that on average, a hectare can yield an extra profit of about $400-$1000 (Sh40,000-Sh100,000 ) with good agronomic practices. We will not just give the seeds to the farmers but we will teach them how to produce it using the best agronomic practices so they can maximise their profits. If the whole rice system, from the seed companies to the farmers, can make profit, then the cost of production compared to productivity is going to reduce. This will make the cost of locally produced rice compete with imported rice,” the scientist said.

“We want farmers to be able to make profits from a piece of land and have more money to take care of their bills. This will help our farmers move from subsistence to commercial farming, and once we are able to do this, it will encourage the youth to join agriculture.”

Kayode said the upland rice variety is part of the second set of the hybrids being developed under the rice project.

This second phase has about 127 hybrid rice developed in Kenya and bred in Malindi with the capacity to grow all across the country. The rice is being tested in Busia county under upland/rainfed conditions and not flooded conditions.

The first phase had about 15 rice hybrids that have been developed and are at the Distinctiveness, Uniformity and Stability (DUS) test stage, with the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service awaiting commercialisation.

He explained that there are different types of rice based on the ecology. There are varieties that can do well under upland or rainfed condition, highland condition (cold-tolerant varieties), lowland or flooded conditions and those under irrigated conditions.



“Rice is yet to become an important food crop in East Africa unlike in Western countries of Africa. But in Kenya, the increase of income among the middle class, urbanisation, and the busy lifestyle (where people want something that is fast and easy to prepare) is increasing consumption, especially among the younger people, who are preferring rice to maize. The rate at which people are adopting consumption of rice in Kenya has made it the fastest growing food crop in the country,” Kayode said.

He said even though Kenya only consumes 25 per cent of the rice it produces, the country has the potential of land and farmers to produce rice for the country to be self-sufficient and export to other countries.

Asia and Africa are the two originators of rice in the world, and apart from Madagascar and Tanzania, which are self-sufficient in rice, all other countries in Africa import rice.

Kayode said Africa needs to be cautious on the sustainability of rice importation because a country like China used to be self-sufficient but now the there is depletion in terms of yields, and they are now importing rice.

“If we are not careful, with time, Africa will not have anywhere to import rice from. We do not want to have a rice crisis again in Africa like the one in 2008. There is a projection that by 2050, the importation of rice is likely to double if no measures are taken to increase productivity and production in Africa,” he said.

“We should now starting changing our minds from rice being a food crop to a cash crop.”


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