An incredible 10.8 tons per hectare!
A sampling of rice from a demonstration field had just been tested to assess the yield per hectare and the result created a furor in Madagascar. The magic yield of 10.8 tons per hectare was 3.6 times the amount of local rice generated per hectare. The Malagasy were agog, wanting to know how this miracle happened.
The crop came from the 5-hectare demonstration base in the town of Mahitsy where Chinese agricultural experts had planted hybrid rice. The entire land had turned golden yellow with harvest just around the corner.
The Republic of Madagascar is located in the southwest corner of the Indian Ocean, across the sea from the African continent. The national emblem of Madagascar contains an outline map of the island at the center, leaves of the Ravenala, a plant typical of Madagascar, also known as traveler’s palm, and the head of a zebu, revered by the local people, semi-circled by ears of rice. It indicates how agriculture plays a key role in Madagascar.
Of the nearly 25-million population, more than 80 percent are engaged in agriculture. Rice is the main crop, covering 1.5 million hectares or more than half of Madagascar’s 2.9 million hectares of farmland. However, rice production remained low, and nearly 2 million people faced the threat of famine.
The main difficulty in cultivating rice in Madagascar was a lack of quality seeds and advanced technology.
As the largest island in Africa, Madagascar has a land area of nearly 600,000 square kilometers, but only 10 percent of the arable land is utilized. The potential of arable land development is huge.
A high-yield hybrid rice demonstration field in Madagascar
Since Madagascar has four different climates – tropical rainforest, tropical savanna, tropical plateau and semi-arid. The rice seeds need to adapt to a variety of ecological environments.
The Malagasy often wondered where they could find such seeds.
The Chinese experts arrived with the answer. More than a decade ago, Chinese hybrid rice expert Hu Yuefang came to Madagascar and visited almost all the rice-growing areas on the island. Mentored by Yuan Longping, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, Hu and his team successfully cultivated three kinds of high-yield hybrid rice seeds suitable for the local soil and climatic conditions. They were all approved by the government of Madagascar.
It is Hu’s firm belief that if hybrid rice is grown in 15 percent of the farming area, Madagascar can achieve self-sufficiency in rice. Today, Madagascar regards growing hybrid rice as one of the key measures to achieve food self-sufficiency and even export food.
In 2019, the China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center’s Africa sub-center was established in Madagascar. In addition to training agricultural technicians, the center supports local seed companies, builds sales networks, seeks to reduce seed production costs, and helps more farmers to use high-yield hybrid rice seeds.
The hybrid rice technology is anticipated to increase Madagascar’s grain production and income, and possibly even change its status from a food importing country to a food exporting country.
Abbas is a farmer in Sindh, Pakistan. In the past, he grew crops by manually scattering the seeds in the field.
But when the Chinese experts came to Pakistan, they taught him how he could use manual intervention to improve production. Methods like artificial pollination or field rogueing help to optimize planting and production. If the rice plants are shaken more and with greater frequency during flowering and pollination, the pollen will be spread wider and the yield will grow.
A Chinese expert called Cai Jun taught him these techniques. Cai, in his early 30s, has been working in Pakistan for more than two years.
Chinese and Pakistani experts visiting a demonstration field in Pakistan
“At first, I didn’t believe this,” Abbas said. “We thought that Allah would bless the harvest. However, every time during the busy planting season, Cai Jun would arrive in the field early and teach us perseveringly how to grow rice.”
Guided by Cai, local farmers eventually accepted these new methods. They transplanted the hybrid rice seedlings and removed undesirable rice plants round by round under the scorching sun. Eventually, it was harvest time.
They found the yield from about 200 hectares had nearly doubled from 7,500 kg to 13,500 kg per hectare. Abbas and the other farmers broke out in wide grins.
“We should have a bigger celebration for this year’s Eid al-Adha. Because of the bumper harvest, we have more income, thanks to Cai Jun and the other Chinese experts. Without their guidance, I would still be farming the old way,” Abbas said.
On the day of Eid al-Adha, Abbas invited Cai and his colleagues to his home, where he plied them with the choicest pieces of meat. It was his way of appreciating the Chinese experts and the Chinese hybrid rice planting techniques.
Although agronomically there is no difference between conventional rice and hybrid rice, less hybrid rice seeds are needed for the planting and therefore it is more economical. At present, Pakistan’s hybrid rice planting area accounts for 50 percent of the total rice planting area in the country. In 2018, Pakistan was the fourth largest rice exporter in the world, contributing to global food security.
The Yuan Longping High-tech Agriculture Co., Ltd. has been involved in the hybrid rice foreign assistance program for 20 years. In 2017, they started a three-year program to assist Senegal. The program is the sixth phase of China’s agricultural assistance in the country.
A harvesting ceremony in Senegal
The group of Chinese experts remembered what an official from the Training Department of Senegal’s Ministry of Agriculture had once said. “Senegal is an agricultural country with a large rural population. Teaching people to use advanced agricultural technologies to get rid of poverty and become prosperous is related to the future development of Senegal,” he said. “Senegal is vigorously implementing its revitalization plan, in which self-sufficiency in food production is the focus. All of this needs advanced agricultural ideas and technical support.”
Therefore, the group decided to spread the concept of advanced agriculture and create a fertile ground and also teach advanced technologies to local people. The training was to be a two-pronged approach, improving the abilities of both farmers and college students.
Senegalese farmers, despite their vast experience, lacked innovative thinking. Although they worked with the land every day, it was often difficult for them to accept new foreign technical concepts. It was equally important to update their knowledge and foster innovation among them.
For example, in terms of improving the conditions for growing crops, it took a lot of effort to convince the local farmers. In the past, the soil in the rural areas was severely hardened due to the heavy use of chemical fertilizers and was detrimental to growing crops. “Land is the root of crops, which directly determines the quality of harvests.” This was a point that the Chinese experts often emphasized.
In order to optimize the land, the Chinese experts decided to use organic fertilizers after detailed analysis and research. They taught farmers how to improve the soil structure and fertility. Once the land improved, the yield and quality of crops also significantly improved. The farmers began to accept the suggestions of the Chinese experts.
Ali, a local farmer, lives near the China Agricultural Demonstration Base in the town of Sangalkam. After learning advanced farming techniques from the agricultural group, he has had much higher income.
“The skills these experts taught us are very practical, not fancy, and easy to learn and use, and the effect is very obvious. This is what we really need!” Ali said, admiring the Chinese technologies.
The project team has purified and rejuvenated six local conventional rice varieties, and promoted two practical techniques to cultivate seedlings in soft plastic plates and to throw rice seedlings. These new varieties and new technologies have been warmly welcomed by the local farmers, giving new vitality to local agriculture.
Flourishing hybrid rice
Senegalese college students are passionate about their work. They have a broad mindset and readily accept new technologies and ideas. Once they master advanced management knowledge and acquire practical experience, they have the potential to become agricultural management experts.
Omar is a college student who has received training in Chinese agricultural technology. He said, “The Chinese expert group brings not only new technologies, but also new ideas. From production, harvesting, storage and processing to sales, the more complete the industrial chain is, the more benefits we can gain. I found this idea really enlightening. It was a new concept for Senegal. I think we need this kind of new ideas to get rid of poverty!”
From 2018 to April 2019, China’s agricultural assistance team in Senegal provided free training to 175 students from the University of Dakar to develop high-level talents for Senegal’s agricultural development. Represented by hybrid rice technology, the scope and scale of China’s foreign agricultural assistance has expanded, improving the level of agriculture in the recipient countries and helping alleviate food shortage, thereby contributing to the elimination of extreme poverty.
Since the 1980s, China has trained more than 14,000 people in hybrid rice technology in nearly 80 developing countries through various agricultural assistance programs. At present, more than 40 countries and regions around the world have realized large-scale cultivation of hybrid rice, with an annual planting area of 7 million hectares. The rice’s yield is over 20 percent higher than that of conventional rice.
Since the late 1990s, companies like Yuan Longping High-tech Agriculture Co., Ltd. and Yuanshi Seeds Industry Hi-Tech Co., Ltd. have selected hybrid rice varieties successively for Pakistan, Madagascar and Senegal, and cultivated high-yield hybrid rice seeds suitable for the local conditions of these countries. This has not only met the local need for food, but also helped some countries become exporters of food.