By Isaiah Esipisu
NAIROBI, Aug 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The first hybrid rice varieties developed in sub-Saharan Africa are yielding up to four times more than other improved varieties, say scientists, who are using web-based tools to identify the right climate conditions to maximise harvests.
The 15 hybrids, bred in Kenya and Tanzania, are also tolerant to diseases and the high temperatures found in Kenya's western Lake Region and coastal areas.
Local farmers have always depended on imported hybrid rice varieties, particularly from Asia, which sometimes do not adapt well to conditions in sub-Saharan Africa.
As the climate shifts and arable land shrinks under population pressure, experts say there is a need for more innovative ways to produce food.
Africa's food deficit is projected to increase to 60 million metric tonnes by 2020 if no action is taken, according to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
Joe DeVries, director of an AGRA programme to strengthen Africa's seed systems, said productivity on the continent is limited by the fact that farmers have a narrow choice of improved varieties.
"Most of them (are) planting varieties that were released more than 30 years ago," he said.
Denis Kyetere, executive director of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), which has developed the new hybrids in a public-private partnership, said hybrid technology had revolutionised rice production in Asia, especially in China.
Asia's productivity dramatically increased from an average of 1.89 metric tonnes per hectare in 1949 to 6.71 tonnes per hectare in 2012.
"With this technology, we look forward to Africa being able to feed Africa," said Kayode Sanni, project manager for rice at the AATF. In 2014, Africa imported 12 million tonnes of rice, mostly from Asia, he noted.
The AATF, in collaboration with private firm Hybrids East Africa Limited, has so far developed 140 hybrid rice varieties using African parent lines.
Of these, 15 - each yielding 7 to 10 tonnes per hectare - have been presented to the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) for national performance trials.
U.S.-based aWhere Inc, a partner in the hybrid rice project, has developed web-based tools that allow scientists to determine when and where to conduct breeding, seed multiplication and seed production to take advantage of the best climate conditions.
Improved inbred rice varieties, such as the New Rice for Africa (NERICA) lines, are already in use on African farms.
With this method, two different parent varieties are cross-bred, and their offspring are selected through several cycles of self-pollination, or inbreeding, to get the desired result.
The end product has the ability to reproduce itself through self-pollination because the rice plant flowers contain both the male and female organs.
With hybrid varieties, the parent plants are crossed separately with new varieties, and the offspring from those crosses are united to produce a first-generation hybrid seed, which performs better than both parents. The process is repeated each time.
Currently, the average yield of inbred rice varieties in sub-Saharan Africa is 2.3 tonnes per hectare. But in trials, some of the new hybrids have produced between 7 and 10 tonnes per hectare, said Sanni, more than the breeders had hoped for.
"I think it is a tremendous breakthrough," he added.
One potential problem is that seeds harvested from hybrid plants are not recommended for replanting because their superior performance is lost due to genetic separation, resulting in a lower yield.
That means farmers do not save seed from their harvest to plant again, and seed companies must cross the parent materials every season to produce new hybrid seed for planting.
"This has always been a setback - particularly for farmers who cannot afford higher prices of hybrid seeds. But through this project, we have developed an innovative way of helping the poor farmers, so that they can borrow the seed and pay (it) back only after harvest," said John Mann, managing director for Afritec Seeds Ltd, which is testing more than 100 hybrid varieties under the AATF's "Breeding by Design" project.
Although farmers will have to buy seeds each time they plant, the extra profit from the hybrids' higher yield is expected to be far higher than the cost of the seeds, said Sanni.
Apart from Egypt, which has been producing hybrid rice on a commercial scale for over a decade, no other African country had succeeded in developing its own local hybrid rice.
Egyptian farmers have improved the country's average rice production to almost 10 metric tonnes per hectare, a feat praised by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and others.
Farmers who are participating in the trials in East Africa are eagerly waiting for the hybrid seeds to be officially released for commercial use - probably in less than a year, after two seasons of trials by KEPHIS.
"We have already set aside money to buy the new breeds," said Charles Wawo, a rice farmer and chairman of the Ahero Irrigation Scheme Multi-Purpose Co-operative Society in Kisumu County in western Kenya.
Kenya and Tanzania will be the first beneficiaries of the new hybrid varieties. Trials will then be rolled out in other countries in East, West and Southern Africa, Sanni said.
(Reporting by Isaiah Esipisu; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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