The variety, dubbed SATO1, can yield several tonnes of rice per hectare even in salty ground — up from just 0.5 tonnes for traditional varieties that grow poorly in such soil, the researchers say.
“Farmers are now able to produce six tonnes per hectare, the highest yield ever recorded in the history of rice production in the entire eastern and southern Africa countries.”
Sophia Kashenge, Chollima Agro-Scientific Research Centre, Tanzania
The rice is being used as part of a wider project that combines salt-tolerant varieties identified in Japan after the 2011 tsunami with treatments designed to reduce salt concentrations in the earth.
The combination of better rice and soil treatment has led to the reclamation of 680 hectares of land previously almost incapable of producing rice.
The research is yet to be published in a scientific journal, but the researchers say the land now supports 1,774 households in Ndungu, a salt-prone area in Kilimanjaro district in northern Tanzania.
“Farmers are now able to produce six tonnes per hectare, the highest yield ever recorded in the history of rice production in the entire eastern and southern Africa countries,” says Sophia Kashenge, a researcher at the Chollima Agro-Scientific Research Centre in Tanzania, which managed the project.
As the water receded following the 2011 tsunami in Japan, farmers noticed that some rice plants survived despite being inundated with seawater. Scientists had the foresight to collect these samples for later testing, Kashenge explains.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, there are set to be four times as many people to feed in Africa by the end of the century as there are now, so farmers will need to increase their food production.
Tanzania has seen its population increase from roughly eight million in the 1960s to nearly 45 million today.
The country also has one of the fastest growing urban populations in East Africa — rising by 4.7 per year, according to the government. The expanding urban middle class prefers rice over other staples, and the agriculture ministry is keen to ensure that local rice production can keep up with demand to discourage expensive imports.
But Mike Nenguny, a policy officer at the Kilimo Kwanza initiative, which supports agricultural decision-making in northern Tanzania, says irrigation systems in the area are in poor condition and would need to be repaired before rice can be grown at a larger scale.
He adds that farmers are constrained by water shortages, insufficient fertilisation because of cost and availability, and plant diseases.
“I applaud the work of our local scientists for the development of new SATO1 rice seed, but more support is needed to put our rice production on greater heights,” Nenguny says.
Photo: lindsey elliott/Flickr