Can a hungry Mali turn rice technology into “white gold”?


BAGUINEDA, Mali, Oct 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When rice farmers started producing yields nine times larger than normal in the Malian desert near the famed town of Timbuktu a decade ago, a passerby could have mistaken the crop for another desert mirage.

Rather, it was the result of an engineering feat that has left experts in this impoverished nation in awe – but one that has yet to spread widely through Mali’s farming community.

“We must redouble efforts to get political leaders on board,” said Djiguiba Kouyaté, a coordinator in Mali for German development agency GIZ.

With hunger a constant menace, Malians are cautiously turning to a controversial farming technique, known as rice intensification, to adapt to the effects of climate change.

The method, pioneered in Madagascar in 1983, has raised hopes that Mali’s small-scale rice farmers might be able to increase their productivity to meet the country’s gargantuan appetite for the grain.

Consumption of the staple stood at about 72 kg (163 lb) of rice per person in 2014, according to the latest data Mali’s National Directorate of Statistics has made public – and demand is continuing to grow.

Dubbed the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), the new rice production method involves planting fewer seeds of traditional rice varieties and taking care of them following a strict regime.

Seedlings are transplanted at a very young age and spaced widely. Soil is enriched with organic matter, and must be kept moist, though the system uses less water than traditional rice farming.

SRI is used on both irrigated and non-irrigated land, meaning it is possible to cultivate rice even in Mali’s desert, pilots conducted by the U.S. Agency for International Development have shown.

Up to 20 million farmers now use rice intensification in 61 countries, including in nearby Sierra Leone, Senegal and Ivory Coast, said Norman Uphoff, a senior advisor at the SRI International Network and Resources Center at Cornell University in the United States.

Rice plants grown following the method live longer because, given more space, more oxygen and less water, their roots grow bigger and deeper, so they are more resilient to drought and don’t deteriorate under flooding, he said.

But, despite its success, the technique has been embraced with varying degrees of enthusiasm from country to country. That’s because it competes with the improved hybrid and inbred rice varieties that agricultural corporations sell, Uphoff said by phone.

“Corporate agriculture has a huge stake in this,” he said. The new technique is “not good news for the brand breeders and the seed companies”.


Interest in SRI has mounted as droughts and erratic rainfall become more common, added urgency to efforts to create a steady stream of food from farmland to cooking pots.

Mali is West Africa’s second-largest rice producer, but it still imports 18 percent of its rice annually, according to Abdoulaye Koureissi, national coordinator for a rice farmers platform.

Imports prevent local production from reaching its full potential, he said.

And longer droughts and other forms of unpredictable weather are destroying an ever-larger share of crops across this country, where nearly half the adult population suffered from stunting as children due to malnutrition, according to the United Nations.

Malian authorities are looking for ways to reduce imports and become self-sufficient in rice, said Kouyaté at GIZ.

For Faliry Boly, who heads a rice-growing association, the prospect of rice becoming a “white gold” for Mali should spur on authorities and farmers to adopt rice intensification.

The method could increase yields while also offering a more environmentally-friendly alternative, including by replacing chemical fertilisers with organic ones, he said.

What’s more, rice intensification naturally lends itself to Mali’s largely arid climate, he said.

Kouyaté said that rice intensification uses up to 40 percent less water than traditional rice growing methods.


The European Union and other international funders have supported aid projects that encourage the practice in six of Mali’s administrative regions so far.

This year, around 100 small-scale farmers were trained in the method through a GIZ-backed effort, Kouyaté said, and hundreds more have been trained in other areas of Mali.

Yet, rice intensification has remained largely experimental, with no governmental policy in place to bolster the adoption of the practice, Kouyaté said.

Another obstacle, experts say, is that many farmers using techniques hundreds of years old are often reluctant to try new ways of growing rice.

And the cost of a rice transplanting machine – a key part of the system – is between $2,100 and $2,900, more than many farmers can afford.

Koureissi, of the rice farmers’ platform, said he has also seen farmers discouraged by the time investment required to learn the new method, teach it to their farmhands and then practice it.

“(Rice intensification) asks for a lot of time spent in planting rice, because the seedlings are planted very young, 8 to 15 days old, maximum,” he said.

But Sibiri Konaté, who has been farming rice for nearly three decades in Baguineda, a small town in the country’s south, said the new technique has changed his life.

Konaté went across the country to get training on rice intensification from another farmer two years ago.

On his four-hectare farm – part of a larger communal allocation – Konaté said he has seen his harvest jump from seven to 10 tonnes per hectare.

Even in bad years “I always manage” to get a harvest, he said. “But it is difficult to get other farmers here to commit.”

Reporting by Dieneba Deme, additional reporting by Sebastien Malo in New York ; editing by Jumana Farouky : Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit

Kenya;s Kano rice farmers reap from new technology

Monica Awino spreads rice to dry before milling at Nyang'ande in Nyando, Kisumu County. (Photo: Denish Ochieng/ Standard)

Monica Awino spreads rice to dry before milling at Nyang’ande in Nyando, Kisumu County. (Photo: Denish Ochieng/ Standard)

NYANGANDE, KENYA: It is a sunny Friday morning, and Monica Awino spreads her rice in the sun to dry at her Nyang’ande home in Nyando, Kisumu County.

For over two decades, Awino had toiled and prayed for better harvest, in vain.

The last two seasons however have seen her prayers shift from better harvest to reliable market, after bumper harvest courtesy of a new technology dubbed System for Rice Intensification (SRI).

The system, borrowed from Mwea Irrigation Scheme involves intensive utilization of water, where farmers have equal access of the limited commodity for a particular number of days, and give it away to other farmers, and the cycle continues.


The system also promotes mechanization, use of certified seeds and intensive sensitization which has seen the likes of Awino embrace team work, in terms of planning right from land preparation, planting, harvesting and marketing.

Three plots away from Awino’s is Jack Otange, 30, who has been in the trade for 10 years. The young farmer has three quarter of an acre, and last week harvested 32 bags of paddy rice, a big improvement from the 10 bags he used to get.

Just like Awino, he planted a hybrid seed, Arize 644, which has become the scheme’s preferred rice variety in the recent past.

“I have dried my rice and just waiting for sales. We have information that the price per kilo of paddy has dropped to Sh32, but we have no other option, since we can’t keep the produce for long,” he said.

His sentiments are echoed by Austin Abuto, whose 1.1 acre piece earned him 50 bags. Abuto who has been in the trade since 1992 says the fortune has revived people’s hopes in rice farming.


“I first ventured into the trade in 1992, but I pulled out after it proved not viable. But five years ago, with the news of improved farming techniques, I got back to the farm, and I do not regret,” he said.

And just like the rest, Abuto is worried by the low prices coming with the bumper harvest.

“We had agreed that this season the price of paddy would move from the previous Sh37 to Sh40 per kilo. But things have worsened, with the price dropping to Sh33,” he said.

The trio are some of the over 80 farmers at Siany CC3, an out grower rice scheme in Kisumu County, who are counting blessings after implementing modern farming techniques with the scheme becoming a model farm standing tall between over 40 out grower schemes in the county.

When The Standard visited the scheme on Friday, there was a myriad of activities at the 100-acre scheme which has since become a model farm.

Harvesting was at the peak, with women hitting the dry rice husks to shed off paddy, while young men ferrying sacs of paddy to the drying areas and to the store as farmers ponder about their next move.

Others were in the open fields drying their paddy, while others were busy recording their harvests in the books as with scheme management.

All these benefits however seems to be turning to curses due to lack of market. This has seen middlemen penetrate the farms with Ugandan businessmen who are taking advantage of the already disadvantaged farmers.

“Since I started rice farming in 1993, I have never harvested above 15 bags per acre, but there has been some positive change since 2016 where the harvest jumped to 40 bags,” said Awino.


Last season, the Ugandan traders were offering Sh37 per kilo of paddy, which the farmers considered low, but there are fears that this price may go lower with improved harvest.

“But do we have options? The stores we use here are not up to the standards, and our produce may not be safe there for long. We will have to dispose the produce to avoid wasting them since we are also in need of money for other domestic needs and preparation for the next planting season,” said Otange.


In 2015, a group of farmers from the scheme visited Mwea Irrigation Scheme in Kirinyaga County for benchmarking which would change farming for the better.

“We realized that apart from lack of uniformity, our people had not embraced the spirit of mechanization due to the small size of parcels here,” said Dr Paul Omanga, who was part of the tour.

Omanga would later mobilize farmers through Nyabon, a technical advisory team implementing farm mechanization at the scheme, organize them into four blocks, making it easy to pull resources and seek the assistance of other players.

According to Dr Omanga, outgrower farmers have had no proper infrastructure, with most of them relying on rain-fed agriculture, and using traditional methods of farming.


And with lack of support from the relevant government agencies, they have had little knowledge of the changing trends in farming, with most of them recycling seeds, and avoiding the use of fertilizer in a bid to reduce the cost of production.

“Convincing farmers to come together was not an easy task, and the first season saw only 50 acres of land put into use. In the second season, there were 25 more acres, and today the entire scheme lying on 100 acres is utilized,” said Omanga.


This phenomenon has pushed the harvest, with farmers like Awino lacking space in their houses to store the produce, and have since come together to construct a makeshift store at Nyang’ande Market.

The marketing challenge may worsen when the farmers roll out two harvests per season, which Omanga said they have been looking into in order to economically maximize the use of the scheme.

“We are now looking into bringing in the National cereals and Produce Board to consider taking our rice so that farmers do not have to live at the mercy of the middlemen after toiling to revive the dwindling rice production,” he added.

Monica Awino spreads rice to dry before milling at Nyang'ande in Nyando, Kisumu County. (Photo: Denish Ochieng/ Standard)

Monica Awino spreads rice to dry before milling at Nyang’ande in Nyando, Kisumu County. (Photo: Denish Ochieng/ Standard)

This Story is courtesy of Standard Media:


Father Henri-de-laulanie, The Founder Of SRI.

Father Henri-de-laulanie, The Founder Of SRI.

The SRI methodology was synthesized in the early 1980s by Fr. Henri de Laulanié, S.J., who came to Madagascar from France in 1961 and spent the next (and last) 34 years of his life working with Malagasy farmers to improve their agricultural systems, and particularly their rice production, since rice is the staple food in Madagascar (see article listed below). Rice provides more than half the daily calories consumed in Madagascar, a sign of the cultural and historic significance of rice to Malagasies, but also an indication of their poverty. Fr. Laulanié want to help farmers improve their productivity without being dependent on external inputs because Malagasy households had so little purchasing power.

Fr. de Laulanié (right) established an agricultural school in Antsirabe in 1981 to help rural youths gain an education that was relevant to their vocations and family needs. Though SRI was “discovered” in 1983, benefiting from some serendipity, it took some years to gain confidence that these methods could consistently raise production so substantially. In 1990, together with a number of Malagasy colleagues, Fr. Laulanié established an indigenous non-governmental organization (NGO), named Association Tefy Saina, to work with farmers, other NGOs, and agricultural professionals to improve rural production and livelihoods in Madagascar. (See Uphoff article on Laulanié’s innovation).



In 1994, Tefy Saina began working with the Cornell International  Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD) based in Ithaca, NY, to help farmers living in the peripheral zone around Ranomafana National Park to find alternatives to their slash-and-burn agriculture. So long as paddy yields, even with irrigation, averaged only 2 tons/hectare, rural households would need to continue growing upland rice and reducing Madagascar’s precious but endangered rain forest ecosystems. These could not last long unless paddy yields were raised on the limited irrigated lowland area. Farmers using SRI methods could averaged 8 tons/hectare after these methods were introduced around Ranomafana. A French project for improving small-scale irrigation systems on the high plateau during this same time period also found that farmers using SRI methods averaged over 8 tons/hectare, compared to 2.5 tons/ha with traditional methods and 3.7 tons/ha with improved methods using fertilizer. A separate evaluation commissioned by the French aid agency (Bilger, 1997) also confirmed average SRI yields of 9 tons/ha.

The name “Tefy Saina” means, in Malagasy, “to improve the mind,” indicating that this organization was not concerned just with rice, but also with helping people to change and enrich their thinking. Before he died in June, 1995, Fr. de published one article on SRI in the Belgian journal Tropicultura (13:1, 1993). (See English translation of a longer technical paper by Laulanié). During 2011, to recognize the 30th anniversity of Laulanié’s work with SRI, the Tropicultura editors included an article (Intensive rice farming in MadagascarTropicultura 29(3):183-187) in their journal, which is based on the original 1993 article.

Since 1997, a number of other papers or articles have been written about SRI. While most interest came initially from NGO and university circles, evaluations are now coming also from national research programs and international research institutes. More information (in French) about Fr. de Laulanié is available on the Tefy Saina website (Henri de Laulanié, le Visionnaire Realiste) and from an obituary in Jesuites en Mission – Chine Madure Madagascar (No. 255, Dec 1995-Jan1996).