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The African component of a research initiative aiming to provide smallholder farmers with new rice varieties has been launched in Benin.

The project, led by the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Africa Rice Center, was launched at a meeting at the Africa Rice Center laboratories in Cotonou, Benin, earlier this month (5–8 March).

It is part of a larger scheme for IRRI, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to improve rice varieties in Africa and Asia (see Gates Foundation boost for climate-hardy rice).

The project aims to provide smallholder farmers who rely on rain-fed agriculture — and are therefore vulnerable to drought, flooding and high salinity — with improved rice varieties and farm management practices to increase yields by 50 per cent over the next ten years.

"In these regions, farmers are always getting yields which are only one or two tons per hectare, when normally they could get up to five tons per hectare or even more," plant breeder Baboucarr Manneh of the Biotechnology Unit at the Africa Rice Center, told SciDev.Net.

"The idea is to develop rice varieties, distribute the seeds of these varieties and make sure they're available to all farmers."

Work will be carried out in Benin, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Tanzania to design rice varieties best-suited to each country.

"We need to work with each country's national and agricultural research systems to develop varieties and test them with the farmers," Manneh told SciDev.Net.

Some stress-tolerant rice breeds are already being tested. "A breed which tolerates completely submerged conditions for up to two weeks was found in a traditional rice variety in India," explains plant breeder David Mackill from IRRI. "We were able to transfer this gene from the traditional variety."