Peace Corps staff and farmers hold rice plants during a regional System of Rice Intensification training in Kakanitchoé, Benin.

$14M grant to adapt West African rice production to climate

The Climate Resilient Farming Systems program at Cornell is playing a key role in an initiative to make rice more resilient to climate change and increase production of the staple crop for smallholder rice farmers across 13 West African countries, thanks to a four-year, $14 million grant from the Adaptation Fund.

The Scaling up Climate Resilient Rice Production in West Africa (RICOWAS) project’s goal is to apply principles of the novel Climate-Resilient Rice Production (CRRP) approach, in order to increase rice productivity, create rice self-sufficiency, and adapt to climate change in West Africa.

The Sahara and Sahel Observatory will oversee the overall project, while the Rice Regional Center of Specialization, hosted by the Institute of Rural Economy in Mali, will manage it on a regional level. Working in partnership with the rice center, the Cornell program will provide technical assistance, scientific insights and support.

RICOWAS represents a follow-up to a World Bank project that was implemented from 2014 to 2016 and continues this work across Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo through national institutions in each country.

“Climate change doesn’t stop at the national borders,” said Erika Styger, who leads the Climate Resilient Farming Systems program in the Department of Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and is a principal investigator of RICOWAS. The project’s teams will  coordinate across diverse governments, language barriers, and climate and agroecological zones to collaborate across the region, Styger said. Togo, for example, contains three climate zones.

“By creating an enabling framework to work and exchange [across these countries] we can create a regional community of practice and reinforce each other’s capacities,” she said.

The CRRP approach is based on the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) methodology in combination with location-specific Sustainable Land and Water Management (SLWM) practices, and if indicated with Integrated Pest (and disease) Management (IPM).

SRI is based on an agronomic framework that includes: encouraging early and healthy plant establishment; minimizing competition among plants; building up fertile soils rich with organic matter and beneficial soil biota; and carefully managing water to avoid flooding and water stress. By applying these principles together, rice plants are healthier and more productive with deeper, larger roots and more, fuller seeds (grain).

The principles remain the same for all rice systems and climate zones, though the practices to implement them may vary based on location. By combining SRI with SLWM and IPM practices, farmers will be equipped with the best techniques to adapt to climate change while increasing their rice productivity.

West Africa produces more than two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africa’s rice, mostly by low-income smallholders. In recent years population growth and rising per capita rice consumption has outpaced production and has led to increased imports from Asia that account for close to half of the rice consumption in the region. Prices have also been volatile, subject to sharp and steep hikes.

Along with climate change, these pressures led the Economic Community of West African States to launch a 2013 effort aiming to achieve rice self-sufficiency by 2025. RICOWAS is part of that effort.

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Lindsey Knewstub