Louis Malassis Prize Shortlist: The Story Behind the Science of Dr. Kazuki Saito

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Farming First is pleased to act as media partner for the Louis Malassis International Scientific Prize and the inaugural Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security. Our new blog series will showcase stories from scientists nominated for these prestigious prizes.

The sixth blog in this series outlines the work of Dr. Kazuki Saito, nominated for the Louis Malassis International Scientific Prize for Young Promising Scientist.

Rice is one of the major staple crops in Africa. Rice consumption is increasing dramatically, mainly due to changes in eating habits and rapid population growth. Rice yield and production area also have increased, but rice production has not caught up with the demand. Consequently, the continent still imports some 50 per cent of its rice. African governments have realized that depending too heavily on rice imports is risky based on their experience of the food crisis in 2007–2008, and have initiated rice-sector development programs to raise local production.

Global Yield Gap and Water Productivity Atlas Project – which Africa Rice Center (AfricaRice) is involved in – shows great potential to enhance rice yield in Africa. The difference between yield obtained under optimum growing conditions and actual yields (known as yield gap) is between 2 and 8 tonnes per hectare. The work of Dr. Kazuki Saito, nominee for the Louis Malassis International Scientific Prize for Young Promising Scientist examines why this gap exists and what can be done to close it.

AfricaRice set up a research network in 2011 called the Africa-wide Rice Agronomy Task Force, which Dr. Saito co-ordinates, and includes national agronomists from 21 African countries.

“The task force initially conducted surveys in farmers’ fields to understand the challenges to rice production,” says Dr. Saito. “Preliminary results indicated that water stress, poor soil fertility and weed infestation and farmers’ sub-optimal management of these three factors were major constraints. Rice yields are generally higher in irrigated conditions than in rainfed conditions, where farmers rely solely on rainfall. Resource-poor farmers often found it difficult to buy fertilizer and other inputs as they lack access to credit. They also depended heavily on manual weeding.”

Based on the initial results from the surveys, the task force recommended three priority areas to help close the yield gaps: (1) introducing, testing and disseminating baskets of ‘good agronomic practices’ (GAPs) to farmers through participatory learning and action-research, (2) testing various mechanical weeders to identify locally-adapted weeders for dissemination (Picture 2), and (3) developing and testing an Android app-based decision-support tool called RiceAdvice, to provide farmers with recommendations tailored to their own circumstances (Picture 3).

“GAPs vary from country to country,” comments Dr. Saito. “In Nigeria, for example, farmers broadcast rice seeds without proper land preparation, which leads to poor yield. The task force is helping introduce proper land preparation methods to farmers, including two land preparation practices including bunding, which helps maintaining water in their fields and levelling, which help to distribute standing water uniformly within the fields, as well as transplanting seedlings.”

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The task force introduced GAP baskets to more than 600 farmers in 14 countries in 2014. It will monitor these farmers’ fields to see if the GAP baskets are being adopted by farmers and to assess the impact of the introduction of GAPs on rice yield this year.

Various mechanical weeders were tested with around 600 farmers including women farmers in 8 countries and promising weeders were identified. Interestingly, different types of weeders were selected in different locations. “This could be due to differences in water availability and weed infestation level. In rainfed conditions in Benin, both male and female farmers selected the ring hoe weeder. The promising weeders will be disseminated to farmers to get their feedback and evaluate their adoption. Also, the task force will work together with the Africa-wide Rice Mechanization Task Force to make sure that local blacksmiths can fabricate and repair these weeders,” says Dr. Saito.

The RiceAdvice decision-support tool was tested in around 200 farmers’ fields in 9 countries in 2014. Results in irrigated conditions in Nigeria over two seasons showed about 1 t/ha yield advantage of the guidelines generated by RiceAdvice over farmers’ practices. Large-scale dissemination will start this year in Nigeria and Senegal, while the other countries will continue to validate RiceAdvice.

“We realize that agronomy alone cannot solve all the problems of rice production,” comments Dr. Saito. “Addressing market, financial and institutional challenges and ensuring the availability of land with good water control or irrigation are crucial for establishing an enabling environment for farmers to apply GAPs.”

“Since 2011, AfricaRice has been focusing on rice sector development hubs to achieve impact in Africa, especially by developing rice value chains. The agronomy task force is closely linked with the hubs and works with other thematic groups in the rice sector, such as breeding, gender policy, mechanization, and process and value addition. Its major thrust is to strengthen agronomy capacity and it is actively involved in the online knowledge sharing platform called Ricehub. I believe that the innovations introduced by the agronomy task force are already reaching smallholder farmers across Africa and are beginning to make a positive difference in their lives.”

The winners of the Louis Malassis International Scientific Prize and Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security, will be announced at the Third Global Science Conference on Climate Smart Agriculture on 16th March, 2015.

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One response to “Louis Malassis Prize Shortlist: The Story Behind the Science of Dr. Kazuki Saito

  1. Pingback: AfricaRice agronomist Kazuki Saito wins France’s prestigious Louis Malassis Young Promising Scientist Prize | AfricaRice Newsroom