Wanted: Scientists Who Can Work with Farmers


One of the highlights of reporting my story "Seeds of Hope" in this week’s issue of TIME was getting to talk with Monty Jones, an agricultural scientist from West Africa who in 1990s managed to cross-bred a high-yielding Asian variety of rice with a hardy African variety of rice. The resulting strain, called NERICA (or New Rice for Africa), yields more grain at harvest time than most African varieties but survives in much drier conditions and is tolerant to many more pests than any of the available Asian varieties.

NERICA proved particularly successful early on in Guinea. “Guinea was able within three years of the cultivation of NERICA to cut importation of rice by 50% from 350,000 metric tons to 150,000 metric tons per year,” Jones says. “Farmers are smart. If they see something good they go for it.” And in fact, NERICA is now being grown outside of West Africa as well--in places like Uganda and Rwanda.

Now I usually cover health and medicine, so I had no idea how much work has been done in agricultural research in various countries in Africa. Neither, apparently, do a lot of African farmers.

The problem, says Jones, who is originally from Sierra Leone, is in trying to get useful information and improved seed varieties from the researchers into the hands of farmers.

He’s hopeful that the new Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which was launched last week with a $150 million contribution from the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, should help make that translation of research into practical applications possible.

Why? While Jones was working on NERICA, he engaged the help of numerous farmers to test out the NERICA varieties against what they had been using previously. Such “participatory research,” as he calls it, is going to be a hallmark of the new Alliance’s approach.

Christine Gorman

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