Nerica rice holds promise for agricultural growth

19 May, 2024 - 00:05 0 Views
Nerica rice holds promise for agricultural growth The Nerica rice initiative has been successful in West and Central Africa

The Sunday Mail

Hamond Motsi

RICE used to hold high status for the common people in Zimbabwe and was typically reserved for special occasions such as Christmas and ceremonial gatherings, especially before 2009 and 2010.

During that period, it was barely available in supermarkets and shops, particularly in rural areas.

Today, this high status has significantly declined owing to the increased consumption of rice over the past decade, making it the third most important grain in the country after maize and wheat.

From 2010 to the present, rice consumption has risen from approximately 50 000 tonnes per year to about 300 000 tonnes, with a further rapid increase projected over the next few years.

This exponential growth can be attributed to a variety of factors, including shifts in consumer preferences, changes in dietary habits, rapid urbanisation, lifestyle changes, increased import dependency and socio-economic factors. In fact, many households are now consuming rice more frequently than sadza, which is prepared from maize.

Sadza has always been the staple food in Zimbabwe. However, the growing diversification of the country’s diet indicates that rice might have become another alternative staple.

This shift could be crucial considering the impact of climate change, which has affected maize production owing to droughts.

During such difficult times, rice can play a vital role in guaranteeing food security.

While Zimbabweans continue to have a strong appetite for rice, it is noteworthy that over 95 percent of the crop is imported, amounting to over US$100 million in costs annually.

According to the 2021 report from the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development, rice is cultivated on roughly 1 500 hectares (ha), yielding nearly 400 tonnes per year.

Most of the production takes place in Manicaland, as well as Mashonaland East and West provinces. It is worth noting that most rice varieties cultivated in these regions are indigenous (mupunga), predominantly blue bell and mhara.

The varieties are primarily produced by smallholder farmers in wetlands, where farmers face challenges such as low yields and susceptibility to disease and logging.

There is a general misconception that rice can only be cultivated in high-water environments, which could be a major reason for low production of the crop in the country.

Given the growing demand for rice and its economic potential, it is essential to expand its cultivation in Zimbabwe.

The Government recently launched a new initiative involving the cultivation of the New Rice for Africa (Nerica) varieties.

These are a cross breed between Asian and indigenous African rice varieties.

They can be grown in either rain-fed or irrigated environments.

Currently, there are over 82 different Nerica varieties available since the programme’s inception on the continent in 2000.

The initiative has been successful primarily in West and Central Africa.

There has been some success reported in the East and Southern Africa regions.

According to reports, by the year 2017, Nerica varieties had contributed to food security for over 7,2 million people and moved eight million people out of poverty across 16 African countries. Similar to other countries on the continent, Zimbabwe has high potential for the commercial cultivation of rice, given the country’s favourable soils and climate.

Even in the wake of climate change, such as this year’s El Niño-induced drought, Nerica rice can potentially perform better because of its crucial climatic-adaptation and high-yield potential under harsh conditions.

In addition, the Government has also launched strategic interventions and investments to facilitate irrigation development targeting about 400 000ha, which are required to sustain the entire country and ensure food security from the present 220 000ha in the next few years.

The Smallholder Irrigation Revitalisation Programme was also launched to restore smallholder farming irrigation schemes that were under-performing.

Considering rice in these irrigation programmes might herald the beginning of large-scale production of the crop, which will be beneficial to both the commercial and smallholder farming sectors in Zimbabwe.

According to preliminary research conducted in the country on few Nerica rice varieties, there is huge potential to cultivate the crop.

However, despite these efforts that have provided a benchmark for future research, the crop is still poorly understood.

More research is needed on various factors of production, including climate, soil type, water requirements, planting and harvesting dates, and cultivar selection in specific locations within the country, to achieve full sustainable potential.

This requires the participation of all key players in the rice value chain, such as the Government, seed companies, agro dealers, agricultural colleges and universities, research centres, farmers, agronomists and extension officers.

Research may need to be expanded further beyond Nerica varieties to include improvement of local varieties.

Moreover, it is essential for the country to collaborate with researchers from other countries where rice production has progressed, as this would bring valuable expertise.

At present, the Government has partnered with the Japanese government, through the Japan International Cooperation Agency, to lead rice research in the country and engage in knowledge transfer and skill sharing.

This is a commendable initiative, especially considering that Japan is a major global rice producer and possesses extensive expertise in the cultivation of the crop.

So, the increase in rice consumption in Zimbabwe suggests a positive trend in the country’s food systems and a move away from overreliance on a single staple crop.

However, the full potential of rice production in Zimbabwe can only be achieved through extensive research, which should be the first step in the country’s strategic plan to adopt the grain.

Hamond Motsi is a PhD student in the Faculty of Agrisciences at Stellenbosch University. He is interested in writing about sustainable agriculture and agricultural development in Africa. He wrote this article for The Sunday Mail. Feedback: [email protected]

 

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