YAOUNDE, CAMEROON —
Its 7am at the Yaounde city hall. The 2013 edition of the National Science and Innovation Expo has just opened. A man is making an announcement over the public address system. Government officials, scientists, and a curious public are all here to discover the work of the country’s top researchers. There is much to see: pest resistant cocoa, a beverage made from oil palm sap, solar panels, energy-saving stoves. There is even medicine made from roots and barks; and a locally manufactured brickmaking machine.
But it’s Stand-17 that has caught most people’s attention. It belongs to the state-run Institute of Agricultural Research and Development (IRAD). Over the past years, the institute has been working on a new and improved rice variety that can grow on dry land and produce much more than other varieties. Today, it is on exhibition and has been named nerica. The researchers say it is going to completely change rice production in Cameroon and Africa.
Nerica takes only three months from when it is planted to when it is harvested. Because its roots do not sink deep, it can grow on dry ground. There is no need for irrigation because Cameroon’s abundant rainfall is enough. Standing only 60 to 70 centimeters tall, nerica is also easier to harvest compared to other varieties that can be more than one meter tall.
Madeleine Akoa works at the rice unit of IRAD and has been explaining the breakthrough to visitors ever since the Expo opened. She says the rice variety can adapt to any ecological condition and easily integrates existing planting seasons and practices.
"Its advantages," she says, "are that it requires little work and there is no need for irrigation in the rainy season. It can be cultivated in the same way that corn is cultivated. If you plant in August, you can begin harvesting in November and December."
IRAD did not invent nerica, which is a cross-breeding of African and Asian species. Initial research was conducted by the Africa Rice Center, formerly the West African Rice Development Association, based in Benin Republic. The first seeds were planted in 1996. Since then, governments and research institutions across the continent have been pushing for its adoption by African farmers.
What the developers consider exciting is the fact that it can yield up to four tons of high quality rice per hectare. This is significant for Cameroon, which is a net importer of rice.
Local production accounts for less than 40% of the national need. In 2011, it imported more than 550,000 metric tons of rice at CFA145 billion or US$90 million. By mid-2012, it had already purchased from abroad an estimated 366,000 tons. Authorities expect that even more rice would be imported this year due to the growing demand, estimated at 650,000 metric tons annually.
Many attempts have been made to raise local production. In June, Japan pledged to fund the mechanization of small-scale rice production for roughly CFA100 million, about US$200,000. The World Bank has also announced a US$108 million project, which includes reopening rice farms in northern Cameroon. Meantime, a Chinese company is growing rice in Cameroon for both the local market and for its own markets.
But at the food section of the Yaounde central market, just a stone’s throw from the city hall, it is hard to find locally grown rice. At a wholesale shop, there are more than 100 sacks piled at the far end. There is Thai rice, Chinese rice, Indonesian rice, Brazilian rice but not a single sack of Cameroonians rice.
Akoa says the challenge for IRAD is to encourage Cameroonian growers to adopt nerica.
"IRAD wants to popularize this rice variety so that any Cameroonian, including the average peasant, can grow their own rice, even if it’s only for home consumption," she says.
"Imported rice contains a lot of additives and lacks many essential nutrients," she says. "But rice produced in Cameroon is more nutritious, firstly because its oil and fiber are not extracted and it has not been significantly modified."
But increasing local production could take a long time. Only 63,000 metric tons of rice was domestically milled in 2012, down from 85,000 in 2011. This year, the forecast is a dismal 70,000 metric tons.