In Kenya's bid to reduce its reliance on rice imports, a new strain that uses less water and has high nutritional value could prove significant.
A new breed of rice is encouraging hopes that Kenya can reduce its reliance on foreign imports of the staple and possibly even become the region's rice bowl.
Known as IR522, the newly-developed strain uses less water than most other varieties, delivers high yields, and even contains more protein than many other types of rice. But there is still a long way to go before Kenya can become a net producer.
The reasons for wanting to develop domestic rice production in Kenya are clear. Consumption of rice in the country is rising at a rate of 12% per year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, and rice is Kenya's third most popular cereal. But while it consumes 300,000 metric tonnes of rice each year, Kenya produces just 110,000, with the shortfall is made up through imports from Asia.
These imports can be costly and leave the population particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in global food prices. The Kenyan government thus wants to enhance local production and reduce the country's reliance on imports. It is engaging in a range of schemes in this attempt, with its biggest boost of confidence so far coming from the successes around the newly-developed IR522 strain of rice.
Innovation, investment and IR522
IR522 was created by the Kenya Agricultural Institute (KARI) in partnership with the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. And some of the scientists involved believe that IR522 is by far the most effective breed of rice they have introduced.
IR522 reportedly uses almost 70% less water than most other varieties which, as Lusike Wasilwa, a scientist from KARI, explains, means "it requires less irrigation, and saves on costs associated with irrigation, which are quite expensive for farmers".
Furthermore, the new strain also has additional nutritional benefits. According to Wilson Songa, Kenya's Agriculture Secretary, IR522 has "at least 40% more protein content than most Asian and African breeds of rice".
This strain could even prove more productive than its toughest international competition. Nerica 4, a rice breed funded by the African Development Bank, the Japanese government and the United Nations Development Programme, has also just been released onto the Kenyan market. But it does not seem to be performing as well. Wasilwa explains that IR522 is producing around 6 tonnes per hectare, compared to the 5 tonnes per hectare yielded by Nerica 4.
Given these benefits, it is unsurprising that IR522 has proved popular. According to Songa, "Farmers are expected to produce more than 45,000 tonnes of the new crop" in the next harvest season between late October and early November.
One of the farmers who has adopted the new strain is John Shikunzi, a farmer from Western Kenya's rice growing Ahero region. He explains, "I produce about 30 bags per acre on my five acre farm. Most of my produce is for sale and only just a few kilos are consumed by my family. On average, I make a profit of about $5,000 per acre of rice considering I produce about 30 bags of the IR522 crop."
A helping hand
Hopes are high for the potential of the new rice strain, but the development of IR522 is just one part of the government's bid to boost rice production. For example, on the back of the development of the strain, Songa explains, "we will be giving more research grants to talented scientists in a bid to increase further research on rice and other crops."
Alongside research, foreign actors have also been involved in helping develop Kenya's rice agriculture. In 2011, for example, the Japanese government gave Kenya a $150 million loan to help irrigate 30,000 hectares of land in the rice delta region. And the World Bank has offered funds for infrastructure and other developments.
The government is also trying to rectify some local-level problems associated with rice production such as pest control, lack of knowledge of rice production techniques, and poor access to credit. And although information provided to farmers about the effectiveness of new hybrid crops has thus far been minimal, the government says it plans to spend more money training farmers on how to plant the new breeds.
These initiatives could prove positive in boosting domestic rice production in Kenya and easing the country's reliance on food imports. But as Songa is quick to point out, there is a still a very long way to go.
Rice production still lags behind demand, and with the continent as a whole spending over $3.5 billion on rice imports, much more needs to be achieved before Africa can feed itself. Nevertheless, if IR522 fulfils the potential scientists and farmers who have begun using it see in it, it could prove a significant step in the right direction.
Gitonga Njeru is a freelance Journalist based in Nairobi. His stories have appeared in the BBC, Reuters, The Guardian, The Huffington Post and other media outlets in the UK, US and South Africa.