In Senegal, a return to local rice

We were on our way to the Center of the Sahel, an outpost of AfricaRice , the pan-African research organization that began operating in 1...


We were on our way to the Center of the Sahel, an outpost of AfricaRice, the pan-African research organization that began operating in 1971 to help meet the growing consumption of rice in West Africa, with a focus on increasing self-sufficiency. It now has 28 member countries across the continent, including Madagascar, which participate in research exchanges and whose farmers are trained by AfricaRice experts. Baboucarr Manneh, irrigated rice breeder and regional representative of the center, oversees activities in seven countries in the Sahel region: Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Born in The Gambia, he grew up eating both local and imported rice, and remembers a Mandingo song that warned children against consuming imported iterations of the grain, lest they do so. encounter weevils. My visit was just before the planting season, which usually starts in May or June, leading to harvests in October or November. Manneh technicians were busy packing seeds for new varieties of rice to send to member countries, especially Mali, where the rainy season was about to begin.

In the cooler space of her office, Manneh explained to me how rice gets to our plates: Rice is an herb, and the part we eat grows at the end of the blade, or stalk. As it ripens, the stems begin to droop and turn from green to yellow. The stems are then cut and sent to a thresher to separate the grain from what is now essentially hay. The grains are dried, then removed from their shell. In Senegal, it used to be done by hand with a mortar and pestle, but now it’s more often done with a machine. At this point, the rice is edible but still bears its bran, the outer coating that distinguishes between brown rice and white rice. A milling machine then removes the bran and a polisher smoothes the now white rice.

There are two different types of domesticated rice species in the world, Manneh told me: Oryza sativa, or Asian rice, and Oryza glaberimma, African rice. Oryza sativa is by far the more popular and famous of the two; variations of it – from long-grained basmati to short-grained arborio – have been shipped, cultivated, diversified and cooked around the world for centuries. Asian rice was introduced to the African continent by the Portuguese in the 16th century, but African rice had been cultivated long before: probably 3,000 years ago in the Inner Niger Delta region of northern Mali. It never died out, but by the early 1900s, farmers were more likely to switch to higher-yielding Asian varieties. Manneh attributes the popularity of Asian rice over African rice, from a farmers’ perspective, to the centuries of money, experimentation and attention invested in its development. “It’s like sport,” he says. “You invest a lot of money in sports, you find that you get a lot of talent coming in.” The goal of his lab, and others like it, is to jump over the lost centuries of African rice development through breeding, resulting in varieties that local farmers would like to plant and local consumers would want to buy.

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