Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Green revolution needed in Africa

NYTimes notes problems getting new high yield hybrid seeds into the hands of local farmers...

Developed with financing from wealthy countries and private foundations, the New Rices for Africa, or Nericas, are unpatented and may be grown by anyone. Yet there is a severe shortage of them in a region where both the private and the agricultural sectors are woefully undeveloped.

“This is a story repeated thousands of times all over Africa,” said Joseph Devries, who is the head of seed development for a joint effort by the Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates foundations to jump-start farm productivity in Africa.

“You have farmers who are very willing adopters of new technologies and want to raise yields,” he added, “but are not getting access to seed, fertilizer and small-scale irrigation.” Finding a sustainable way to supply them with seed, he said, “is emerging as the holy grail for agricultural development.”

Here in West Africa, where rice is a staple crop, the African Development Bank is financing a $34 million program in seven countries to spur wider use of the new rice seeds. But the obstacles are daunting.

Farmers typically lack credit to buy seed and fertilizer. And the agricultural economy itself suffers from a lack of investment. Foreign aid for agriculture has plunged over the past two decades. And African governments — some, like Guinea, endowed with natural resources and cursed with corruption — have too often spent less of that wealth than they might have on rural development.

Decent roads to move crops to market are scarce. So are storage facilities to preserve harvests and crop insurance to protect farmers from drought, flood or bumper yields that perversely cause prices to collapse. All can wipe out the income farmers need to provide reliable demand to seed companies, making sale and distribution of the improved seeds a high-risk venture.

Across the region, a handful of private companies in Nigeria and Benin have begun to multiply and market the new rice varieties. Here in Guinea, where there is not a single seed company, the government is now working with farmers to expand the supply of Nericas seed.

Villagers here in Hermakono first enviously spotted the new rices growing in a neighboring community’s field. In 2006, after writing to Guinea’s Agriculture Ministry, they got their first small store of the seeds.

So precious were they that as the first crop grew heavy with grain, the villagers took turns standing watch in the fields. “We divided into small groups to guard it so nobody would steal even one stalk,” said Goulou Camara, a farmer.


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