NAMIBIA: Rice research blossoms into national venture

What began as a small-scale experiment by a University of Namibia associate professor to grow rice in areas where it had not previously been possible, has metamorphosed into a thriving rice-growing venture that has been declared a national project by the government.

Namibia is a drought-prone country with two deserts, the Namib and the Kalahari, that are expanding annually. The former is the oldest desert on earth.

Water is a severely limiting factor for crop production in a country of just over two million people, 65% of whom live in rural areas where drought and marginal agricultural land are common features. Namibia imports about 80% of its food from neighbouring South Africa.

Attempts to grow rice in the north-central region of Namibia nearly 20 years ago failed. A few years later, inquisitive agronomist Professor Luke Kanyomeka began small-scale trials to ascertain which varieties of rice could potentially be grown in Namibia's seasonal wetlands.

He came across New Rice for Africa (Nerica), a rice cultivar created by the West African Rice Development Association to improve rice yields.

"Generally rice requires a lot of water. Paddy rice, which is commonly grown all over the world, is unsuitable for Namibia because the country is semi-arid," Kanyomeka, a Zambian with a PhD in weed science, told University World News.

He obtained rice from the West African Rice Development Association and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

"We then did partial cultivars in Caprivi which showed promise." Caprivi is a region in far north-eastern Namibia.

In October 2007, the government asked the University of Namibia to help grow rice in Kalimbeza in Caprivi and the job fell to Kanyomeka to spearhead the project. This has earned him the nickname 'Prof Rice'.

"We started off with only three hectares. We have identified four varieties of rice that can be grown in the north-central regions of Namibia, whose land could not be used for even growing pearl millet. These varieties have yields of between five and eight tonnes per hectare."

The project grew rapidly, prompting President Hefikepunye Pohamba to declare it a national venture last October. So far this year, the project has harvested 80 tonnes of rice, double that produced last season.

Kanyomeka said the project aimed to satisfy Namibia's domestic demand for rice:

"The land at Kalimbeza will not be enough to produce rice for the whole country. Accordingly, we want to extend rice production to small-scale farmers in the Caprivi, Kavango, Oshana, Omusati, Ohangwena and Oshikoto. We have already trained three researchers and three technicians to support small-scale farmers."

The project team also plan to train seven agricultural extension technicians in rice farming. "We are preparing for this with Kink University of Japan, with whom we have done research in seasonal wetlands in Oshana," Kanyomeka explained.

The project has created seasonal jobs for 200 villagers who are hired for transplanting, weeding and harvesting. The Namibian government plans to buy equipment for the project and to help set up a research station to conduct more research on rice farming.