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[KAMPALA] Uganda hopes to become the region's leader in rice research with the opening later this year of a US$6 million centre at its crop research institute.

The National Crop Resources Research Institute (NACRRI) received the money from Japan in September last year for the construction of a training and research centre for rice farmers and scientists, which is now nearing completion. 

The centre will promote North-South collaboration in research and technology transfer, said Geoffrey Asea, head of the cereal department at NACRRI, and "will be fully operational by December".

The investment is part of Japan's attempt to position itself as a strategic business partner to East African countries by investing in a range of infrastructure, food production and trade projects under the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD IV) initiative.

On the TICAD IV platform Japan launched the Coalition for African Rice Development initiative whose goal was to double rice production between 2008 and 2018.

"Japan has the expertise and history in growing rice," said Goto Akio, coordinator of the New Rice for Africa (NERICA) project at the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). "We started helping Africa after finding out that rice consumption there was lacking and the continent was losing a lot of foreign currency through importing rice."

The Uganda project, which is one of JICA's biggest agricultural initiatives to date in Africa, is aimed at developing institutional capacity and superior strains of rice, Akio said.

"When we did research in Uganda in 2004 there was only one rice researcher there, but now there are more than ten," said Akio. "We want them to increase rice research by themselves."  

The centre will allow farmers to become familiar with rice technologies and learn production skills while giving feedback to researchers, he said. This is unusual because there is normally very little interaction between researchers and rice growers in Uganda, Asea added. 

The grant will also be used to promote rice production in Uganda and build the capacity of researchers, extension agents, farmers and other stakeholders in the rice value chain for production and post-harvest handling. 

Asea said Uganda spent $90 million on rice imports in 2005 but, with improved varieties, the bill has been cut to $60 million a year and the area planted with rice has grown to 50,000 hectares from about 1,500 a decade ago.

"But rice is relatively new to eastern and southern Africa and has not been given much priority — crops are of poorer quality than imported rice," said Asea.