In Benin, ‘Smart-Val­leys’ bring rice bounty

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

OUINHI, Benin: Daniel Aboko proudly shows off the 11 hectares of paddy fields he shares with other farm­ers - a small spread that pro­duces a bounty of food thanks to smart ir­ri­ga­tion and a hardy strain of rice. In just four years, small farm­ers in Ouinhi, south­east­ern Benin, have seen their rice har­vest dou­ble from three to six tonnes of rice per hectare. They pro­duce so much, in fact, that they have cre­ated an un­usual prob­lem for West Africa: a lo­cal glut. “Peo­ple come here to ask us ques­tions and they in­vite me to their fields to train them,” beamed Aboko, af­ter park­ing his mo­tor­bike. “It’s quite com­mon in Ouinhi,” he said.

Some 500 rice grow­ers work in 20 paddy fields in the town of 40,000 peo­ple in the hilly, ru­ral depart­ment of Zou. They ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion from the Africa Rice Cen­tre, or AfricaRice - a not­for-profit re­search and train­ing cen­ter to change their ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem, and it’s worked won­ders. “In 2013, there was a drought but the pro­duc­ers on the pi­lot sites had rice, while the oth­ers didn’t,” said San­der Zwart, a re­searcher at AfricaRice.

Specialists in rice breed­ing and ir­ri­ga­tion, AfricaRice has de­vised a sys­tem called Smart-Val­leys, in which hu­mid in­land val­leys - nat­u­ral catch­ment ar­eas for rain­fall - are scouted out for rice­grow­ing po­ten­tial. The project’s team then work with lo­cal farm­ers, ex­plain­ing the ben­e­fits of an ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem that is cheap and sus­tain­able - pro­vided it is built in the right ar­eas, and used at the right times. But for the change to hap­pen, it needs the farm­ers’ ex­ten­sive knowl­edge of the ter­rain and char­ac­ter­is­tics of the soil.

‘The plant gives back’

The work has en­tailed mov­ing some paddy fields into moist val­leys, which are flooded at key times, and toss­ing out con­crete aquaducts, re­placed them with earthen em­bank­ments form­ing rows of ditches. “Rice needs wa­ter, but not all the time,” ex­plained Aboko, who is pres­i­dent of the Ouinhi co­op­er­a­tive. “With this sys­tem, when the time comes to give wa­ter, we do so - if we shouldn’t, we drain it away. “What you give to the plant, it will give that back to you!”

The aim of the project - also be­ing tri­aled in neigh­bor­ing Togo - is not only to fight against drought but also to bet­ter use rain­wa­ter, which is of­ten the only source of lo­cal ir­ri­ga­tion for paddy fields. “Be­fore, peo­ple would choose some­where and cul­ti­vate with­out thought,” said Zwart. “And when there was no wa­ter, they couldn’t do any­thing.” Lo­cal farm­ers are in­volved at ev­ery step. “We clear the veg­e­ta­tion with them and they are the ones who de­sign the lay­out ac­cord­ing to the lanes of run­ning wa­ter, the slope of the ter­rain and the size of plots,” said Zwart.

No mat­ter how lit­tle it rains, the new sys­tem al­lows farm­ers to pro­duce crops. But an­other part of the suc­cess story is due to the rice strain - a hy­brid of African and Asian cul­ti­vars called Ner­ica, which is short­hand for New Rice for Africa. It brings to­gether genes from high-yield Asian strains and an an­cient African strain that is low-yield but re­sis­tant to drought and less thirsty than its Asian cousin. The strain was cre­ated by AfricaRice, which gave pro­duc­ers their first seeds. Grow­ers have since then bought more from their own prof­its.

Sales prob­lems

Guar­an­tee­ing a con­sis­tent har­vest does not mean the farm­ers’ trou­bles are com­pletely solved. “The grow­ers don’t al­ways man­age to sell their pro­duce be­cause they have mul­ti­plied their yield in a short space of time,” said Felix Gbaguidi, a di­rec­tor at the min­istry of agri­cul­ture. “They hadn’t al­ways an­tic­i­pated that as­pect. But some or­ga­ni­za­tions are be­ing set up to look af­ter pro­cess­ing the rice, and mar­ket­ing.”

Even so, Aboko wants to in­crease his yearly har­vest from one to three. And there is room for Benin to in­crease its pro­duc­tion. Back in 2009 the UN Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion (FAO) en­vis­aged Benin be­com­ing self-suf­fi­cient in rice by 2011. Yet last year, France’s agri­cul­ture min­istry said the west African coun­try was still bring­ing in 50,000 tonnes of rice from abroad. With surplus yields it is per­haps mar­ket­ing and sales de­vel­op­ment that Benin needs to take its rice in­dus­try to the next level. One hur­dle is con­sumer re­sis­tance, for many peo­ple pre­fer the aro­matic im­ported rice from Asia to the hardy, nutty lo­cal grain.

OUINHI, Benin: Cul­ti­va­tor Jan­vier R stands in a rice field in a “Smart-Val­leys” ben­e­fit­ting from a new ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem on Nov 21, 2016. — AFP

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Kuwait

© PressReader. All rights reserved.