Quality and quantity of data from varietal selections encourage the adoption of improved rice varieties in sub-Saharan Africa  

 Veronica Mae Escarez   |  

While most breeding efforts are focused on producing improved rice varieties, farmers in sub-Saharan Africa continue to use old varieties that are susceptible to various environmental stresses. Seeking to understand the disconnect, researchers combined qualitative and quantitative data on the preferred rice traits of farmers, researchers, custom millers, traders, administrators, and seed producers from Burundi.  Through this innovative approach, the study uncovered multiple traits in rice that go beyond production-related traits desired by stakeholders and sometimes contradict the trait preferences assumed by plant breeders.

Using qualitative and quantitative data elicits deeper insights into rice trait preferences and broader issues affecting rice farmers that may not be aligned with the goals of crop breeding programs and results in the low adoption rate of improved varieties. This is one of the key findings of a two-year study involving several rice-value chain stakeholder groups in Burundi.

 “Adoption rates can be increased if we develop varieties that meet and address men’s and women’s preferences, needs, and priorities, as well as opportunities and constraints,” said Mary Ng’endo Kanui,  a social scientist at the International Rice Research Institute. 

Rice is one of the most important crops in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), next to maize and cassava, but only a few countries in SSA have reached self-sufficiency in terms of rice production. The low adoption rate of new rice varieties by farmers is one of the challenges to higher production and productivity in rice-producing countries and zero hunger and food security in the region.

While most breeding efforts are focused on producing improved rice varieties, farmers in SSA continue to use old varieties that are susceptible to various environmental stresses. 

Seeking to understand the disconnect, researchers combined qualitative Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) and Participatory Varietal Selection (PVS) on the preferred rice traits of farmers, researchers, custom millers, traders, administrators, and seed producers from northern, southern, and central Burundi (in Kansega, Mugweji and Mugerero villages, respectively). Additionally, men and women were grouped separately. 

Through this innovative approach, the study uncovered multiple traits in rice that go beyond production-related traits desired by stakeholders and sometimes contradict the preferences assumed by breeders.

This research on diverse and inclusive data collection explains why different stakeholders, particularly farmers, remain reluctant to adopt new varieties and how researchers can improve newer varieties that cater to the needs of users with different genders and socioeconomic statuses.

PVS is the stage in plant breeding where select stakeholders are asked which traits they prefer in a product. Plant breeders test new breeds in farmers’ fields or local research stations emulating a nearly similar copy of real-life farm environments and situations. 

This process also encourages the involvement of farmers in the process of plant breeding, providing them with a sense of ownership and control in the process which eventually helps them adopt said varieties that are provided to them because it directly addresses their needs. Initial participatory consultations solely use PVS to gather trait preferences. 

However, incorporating FGDs into the PVS structure provided more gender-inclusive and location-specific perspectives on rice breeding. The FGDs allowed for more nuance as the gender groups provided more depth to each others’ experiences.

In some cases, the plant breeders’ preferences differed from what farmers wanted. For example, the kazosi rice variety was widely preferred by the stakeholders but not by researchers. 

Farmers usually name rice varieties they have been cultivating for a long time after the trait they like the most and kazosi means elongated neck. In southwest Burkina Faso, farmers believe that a longer rice “neck” means that it will yield more grains.

However, for researchers, the long “neck” meant that the plant would more likely be susceptible to lodging or falling over. They also explained that kazosi is prone to irregular maturing of the grains which results in a high percentage of broken grains during milling. Both cause significant yield loss and low milling recovery.

Despite the problems associated with the variety, farmers continue to cultivate kazosi because its seeds are readily available in the market. Farmers have also adapted local agroecological techniques and equipment to solve the problems. 

The selection of PVS varieties should also recognize the gender-based realities of the users. 

In Mali, farmers preferred taller rice varieties because they are less susceptible to weeds. Women farmers also prefer taller crops because they are easier to harvest while they carry their children on their backs. In another region of Mali, shorter varieties were preferred because they would be less likely to be attacked by birds.

In the Cascades Region of Burkina Faso, where the dominant ethnic group’s women mostly inherited their mothers’ rice fields and rice cultivation knowledge, the women farmers manage and make the decisions in rice production.

In these cases, the recommended varieties should suit the needs of those who are more actively engaged in the rice production process.

Geographical conditions also play a role in the selection of rice varieties. Farmers in Kansega, Burundi, who migrated to some areas in the northern part of the country, have smaller fields with low productivity and higher risks because these are usually rainfed. Thus, they look for larger areas to farm to mitigate risks. 

The research also reported that some farmers in SSA could not adopt new rice varieties because of poor seed systems. There were very few seed producers in Mugweji and Kansega in Burundi. 

In Mugerero, farmers find it difficult to adopt new varieties because they do not have access to fertilizers, pesticides, and affordable loans. To address such barriers to adoption, governments are recommended to provide financial support to farmers through formal and informal credit sources.

Farmers’ age, education, and land ownership are other factors in adopting new rice varieties.

Dr. Kanui explained how the recognition of gender roles and gender-specific needs is likely to enhance the adoption of new rice varieties that will benefit both men and women farmers.

“Rice isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of crop,” she said. “To add to the complexity, rice trait preferences might also be gendered and it is important to capture these. One strategy is to understand both men and women farmers’ rice trait preferences and the associated tradeoffs that these farmers make when deciding whether or not to grow a new rice variety.”

No breeding program can be successful or effective without accurate data. The study shows that plant breeders can learn so much more from farmers and other stakeholders when their needs are evaluated beyond the numbers.

Read the study:
Ng’endo M, Nduwimana J, Villanueva D, & Demont M. (2023). How Can Pairing Quantitative With Qualitative Data Collection Methods Better Elicit Rice Varietal Selection? Evidence From Burundi. SAGE Open, 13(4).

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