Zimbabwe is set to embark on an ambitious programme to boost the country’s rice output after the country signed a memorandum of understanding with a Chinese rice research centre recently. Businessman and farmer, Ambassador Christopher Mutsvangwa, struck a deal with renowned Chinese agricultural scientist Professor Yuan Longpin’s National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center in Changsha in Hunan Province to start a pilot hybrid rice production exercise that could easily transform Zimbabwe into a major rice growing hub in the Sadc region using varieties suitable to local conditions.
“After I met Professor Yuan Longpin — revered as the ‘Father of Hybrid Rice’ Yuan expressed his desire to support the pilot project to enhance the country’s rice output and reduce hunger and poverty,” said Ambassador Mutsvangwa who is also Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister.
He signed an MOU on behalf of his firm, Moncris Private Limited while Prof Longpin signed for the National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center, under a deal which was approved by Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development Minister Joseph Made.
“Prof Longpin pledged to put capital into the rice project to make Zimbabwe the rice breeding pad of southern Africa,” Ambassador Mutsvangwa said.
“The Ministry of Agriculture is part of this project and a team of technical experts is coming in the third week of July to start making preparations for the implementation of the rice project at my farm in Norton.
“Prof Longpin also expressed his desire to meet the President (Mugabe) during the upcoming summits”
Under the agreement, the Chinese rice development centre will provide rice hybrid varieties for on-farm trials by Moncris on Zimbabwean soil.
“On completion of this initial seed trial both parties will evaluate the results and make necessary recommendations for further progress.
“Moncris will provide the land, labour, logistical support and finally seek the necessary Government approval to ensure smooth progress of all commercial activities carried out by all parties partaking in this agreement,” read the MOU.
All sides committed themselves to subsequently set a formal agreement, form a joint venture company to cooperate and implement large scale hybrid rice production.
The key objective of the deal supported by both the Chinese and Zimbabwean governments is to enhance the country’s long term food security position and food production strategies.
Agricultural experts say rice is rapidly growing in importance in Zimbabwe and most other African countries.
They say it is now the leading provider of food calories in West Africa and Madagascar and it is now the second largest source of food energy in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole.
“Wheat as a winter crop is facing serious challenges,” said Ambassador Mutsvangwa.
“We cannot compete with countries such as Argentina and others that produce the crop at lower cost. So it is imperative to seek strategies to boost the production of crops such as rice to fight against hunger.”
He said the growing demand for rice provides a strong impetus to explore ways to improve growth and efficiency of local rice production as well as developing policies to control large imports that can impede the development of the domestic rice sector.
Many families in Zimbabwe are now spending a greater share of their total budget on rice and an agricultural expert at the University of Zimbabwe says rice is no longer a luxury food but has become the main source of calories for many people in the country.
“There is huge shift from maize to rice as the younger generation seeks food which is cheaper and easy to prepare,” he says.
“Urbanisation is changing the country’s food taste and such projects, if well supported, can enhance the country’s food security and cut huge amounts spent on imports.”
He says rice driven by urbanisation is now increasingly the food of choice as food tastes become globalised.
The opportunity costs of women’s labour, the ease and rapidity of cooking rice are key factors in urban areas.
Other experts say urbanisation is often accompanied by increased consumption of food away from home, something which has spurred rice demand due to the convenience of rice storage, preparation and cooking.
They further suggest that with the proportion of Africans living in urban areas expected to increase from the current 38 percent to 48 percent by 2013, according to a 2013 AfricaRice report, rice consumption in Africa is expected to surge into the foreseeable future.
Only two percent of rice is grown locally with the bulk being imported from Asian countries.
“We are dealing with a world authority on food security matters (Prof Longpin),” said Ambassador Mutsvangwa.
“If 70 percent of rice produced in the US was developed using Prof Longpin’s hybrid varieties, then we can’t be an exception.
Prof Longpin is a food security legend and embracing his rice development strategies can help to transform the country’s agricultural landscape.”
In the 1970s, Prof Longping developed a high-yield hybrid rice and is said to have once remarked that: “I dreamed of rice plants as high as sorghum, with spikes as long as broom bristles and grains the size of peanuts, and my assistants and I sitting in their shade.”
He received the 2004 World Food Prize for his breakthrough achievement in developing the genetic materials and technologies essential for breeding high-yielding hybrid rice varieties.
His pioneering research has helped transform China from food deficiency to food security within three decades.
Revered as the “Father of Hybrid Rice,” Yuan, at the age of 90, continues his innovative scientific work as director-general of the China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center.
He shared the 2004 World Food Prize with Dr Monty Jones, an African rice breeder who conducted his research at the West African Rice Development Center.
According to media reports, Professor Longpin is widely acknowledged as the first person to discover how to achieve heterosis in rice — a phenomenon in which the progeny of two distinctly different parents grow faster, yield more, and resist stress better than either parent. Rice is a self-pollinating plant.
Because of this trait, it was long assumed that developing a hybrid variety was not possible. Yuan’s work reversed this assumption.
According to a 2013 report by the China National Grain and Oils Information Center, a state grain-policy think tank, projected rice output was projected to dip 0,7 percent to 202,8 million metric tons — the first time since 2003 that China would harvest less than the year before.
China, the world’s largest consumer of rice, is also the world’s largest producer, accounting for a quarter of global output.
“China can solve its food shortages and also help others,” Prof Longpin was quoted saying proudly.
“The total area of rice paddies globally is 2,2 billion mu (147 million hectares), and at least half of that is applicable to hybrid species.
“If the hybrid rice area were expanded by 100 million mu, 15 million more tons of rice could reach the world’s tables, feeding 10 billion people — assuming everyone needs 150 kg every year.”
Since 1996, the Chinese government has dispatched more than 700 agricultural experts and technicians to Mauritania, Ghana and five other countries under the framework of the South-South Cooperation — a programme for developing countries to work together on solutions to their common development challenges.
The Chinese government has trained more than 2000 new specialists in hybrid rice for over 50 countries while at the Beijing Summit of the China-Africa Co-operation Forum in November 2006, President Hu Jintao committed to the construction of 10 agricultural demonstration centres and the dispatch of 100 senior agricultural experts for Africa.
The goal is to help reduce hunger and boost food security in Africa by developing high-yielding varieties of crops
But there is a downside to all this, some analysts say.
The gradually abandoning of growing the staple maize crop and other indigenous crops such as cow pea, millet, sorghum, yam, cassava, and other wild crop relatives such as amaranth, black nightshade and nettles which once met the nutritional needs of Africans for many ages, but have long been shunned in favour of staples such rice, cash crops like tobacco and others is leaving the country and Africa as a whole vulnerable to serious food shortages.
Although varieties of the African rice are still grown in small pockets in Zimbabwe and elsewhere on the continent, the species were abandoned by most African farmers, who preferred to grow Asian rice varieties which were brought in by traders about 450 years ago.
Agricultural experts fear this could lead to the extinction of Africa’s crop genetic resources.
What is needed now, they suggest, was to reverse the gene flow, extracting desirable traits from the Asian rice and transferring them into the African rice.
Says Tewolde Egziabher, head of Ethiopia’s Environment Protection Authority and a global campaigner for protecting biodiversity: “It makes sense to start with work on the local (species), which are already adapted to local conditions.
“The introduction of foreign species was only justified if work on local species had been exhausted, without result.”