In June, a gesture of international significance took place when a bowl of hybrid rice from Africa was presented as a special offering at the tomb of Yuan Longping, fondly recognized as China’s “father of hybrid rice.” This symbolic gift was personally delivered by Rakotoson Philibert, the former Secretary General of the Ministry of Agriculture of Madagascar. It marked a profound moment, signifying the impact of Yuan and his team’s groundbreaking work in the field of hybrid rice.
During a recent telephone interview, Philibert reminisced about how the hybrid rice developed by Yuan and his team has played a pivotal role in helping Madagascar combat hunger. This development is not only transforming the agricultural landscape of the island nation but also inspiring hope worldwide that the persistent challenge of hunger can ultimately be overcome.
Madagascar, with a substantial portion of its arable land dedicated to rice cultivation, faced longstanding hurdles related to low yields from indigenous rice varieties and the absence of advanced rice-growing practices. As a result, the nation was heavily reliant on rice imports to sustain its large population.
In 2007, the Hunan Academy of Agricultural Sciences in China and Yuanshi Seeds Industry Hi-Tech Co. launched a pivotal initiative – a hybrid rice demonstration project in Madagascar. Over the years, agricultural experts meticulously applied multiple techniques, including variety breeding and rigorous analysis of invasive-species risks, to select an optimal hybrid rice variety. This concerted effort culminated in the introduction of Chinese hybrid rice into the soils of Madagascar and onto the plates of African households.
Hu Yuefang, a dedicated 65-year-old agriculture expert from Yuanshi Seeds, along with his team, embarked on an extensive exploration of nearly every rice-planting region across the island. Their goal was to develop a hybrid rice variety best suited to the unique environmental conditions of Madagascar. Their unwavering commitment yielded impressive results, with Chinese hybrid rice plantations covering 75,000 hectares by December 2022, boasting an average yield of around 7.5 tonnes per hectare – a marked improvement compared to local varieties, which typically yield only 3 tonnes per hectare.
“The higher yields and superior texture of Chinese rice have made it a popular choice across Africa,” affirmed Andre, the head of a prominent agricultural company in Madagascar.
The success story doesn’t end there. Chinese hybrid rice has extended its influence to more than 20 African countries, transforming the livelihoods of countless farmers across the continent. For instance, Ngendakumana Charles, a 43-year-old farmer from Burundi, spoke of the life-changing impact of transitioning from cultivating local rice to Chinese hybrid rice. With a reliable source of income from this new variety, he managed to construct a new home and establish a rice mill, not only boosting his own earnings but also providing employment opportunities for neighboring farmers.
In 2019, recognizing the potential for broader regional impact, the China National Hybrid Rice R&D Center took a significant step by establishing an African sub-center in Madagascar. This initiative was designed to promote collaborative efforts in hybrid rice development and agricultural training, emphasizing knowledge sharing and capacity building.
“The annual sowing area of hybrid rice globally is 8 million hectares. If the yield per hectare expands by two tonnes, the annual increase in output will be 16 million tonnes, which is enough to feed an additional 40 to 50 million people,” stated Zhang Lijun, the head of the African subsidiary of Yuanshi Seeds. This figure underscores the transformative potential of hybrid rice in alleviating food shortages and improving food security across Africa.
Through the introduction of Chinese hybrid rice and advanced rice-growing techniques, made possible within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, African nations are taking significant strides towards ensuring that their people’s rice bowls are consistently filled. This collaborative effort is not just an agricultural success story but also a testament to the power of international cooperation in addressing global food security challenges.