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The Africa Rice Center (WARDA) has opened its ranks to four new member countries from central and eastern Africa.

The twenty-sixth session of WARDA's council of ministers held in Abuja, Nigeria last week (3 October) welcomed on board the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, increasing the membership from 17 to 21.

WARDA director general Papa Abdoulaye Seck said in a press release, "Central and eastern African countries are seeing for themselves the benefits of investing in rice research and therefore keen to join the grouping."

Lawrence Narteh, coordinator of the West and Central Africa Rice Research and Development Network, says scientists from the new member countries will now be able to take part in testing and disseminating rice technologies that will help to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

He told SciDev.Net that the scientists can take part in annual expert meetings and therefore gain knowledge on new technology and its use by farmers or the private sector. Research and development capacity of those countries will also be enhanced.

Sub-Saharan Africa cannot compete with Asia and Europe at present because the region's capacity for rice science, trade and policy is inadequate, Seck told SciDev.Net.

He said every WARDA member country should make their rice sector more competitive by improving capacity in research, technical agricultural advice, production, processing and marketing.

For example, they should overcome major bottlenecks such as seed shortage, so that farmers have a regular, adequate supply of quality seeds.

At the meeting, Seck urged African countries to pass a 'seed act'. This would encourage the involvement of the private sector in seed supply and trade, he said, and strengthen national agricultural research stations to produce breeder and foundation seeds, something only 20 per cent have done.

He also urged member countries to establish seed quality control and certification systems.

The council also backed a new pan-African Rice initiative to support Africa's rice sector in research and development, to be launched in 2008.

The networks affiliated to WARDA have over 250 rice scientists working in the major aspects of rice science, natural resources management, economics, innovation and technology transfer.