Partnerships essential to produce new genomics rice hybrids for Africa

Partnerships, communication and sharing ‘big data’ technology essential in developing new Chinese Green Super Rice hybrids for Asia and Africa

Wild African rice growing in Niger. Online source, May 2020.

There are complex technological, collaborative and funding partnerships involved in producing the set off 78 new Green Super Rice (GSR) hybrid rice varieties now being tested in African and Asian rice growing countries.

Since the 2008 world food crisis, the issue of how to feed the growing human population has become more urgent. This is noting that rice is a diet staple for half the world’s population, and that increasing rice production would help to feed an even greater percentage of the human population.  However, to do this, rice production would have to increase by at least 25% by 2030 to keep pace with population growth and demand.  To do this, we will need ‘super rice’ varieties and this is where the Chinese Green Super Rice project fits in – growing high-yielding rice varieties that are resistant to pests, diseases and droughts and that will increase farmer yields. The new rice hybrids must be able to cope with often challenging current conditions. The technology must also allow for the on-going development of rice hybrids that can cope with future climate change growing conditions. Developing those high-producing rice varieties involved rice germplasm collections, complex genomic methodologies and many different partners.

The Green Super Rice (GSR) project is a partnership between the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the BGI Genomics in China. The Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) is a scientific research organization with a mission of implementing basic and applied research, as well as research into new technologies that have an impact on agriculture, while IRRI is an independent, non-profit, research and educational institute, founded in 1960 by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations with support from the Philippine government. BGI Genomics is the Beijing Genomics Institute, a Chinese genome sequencing company, formed in 1999 to participate in the Human Genome Project as a genetics research centre.  The Chinese Green Super Rice project is funded by the Chinese government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), with the BMGF investing $18 million in the project.

What is hybrid rice?

`Hybrid crop plants are produced by crossing two inbred varieties of a particular crop, with the resulting offspring having heterosis (hybrid vigour)  and superior  traits in terms of agronomic properties. As a result of heterosis, hybrid rice has a yield of 15‒20% over the best inbred variety grown under the same conditions. However, rice is difficult to hybridise by conventional cross-pollination and new selections are made by simply searching for better-producing plants. Rice has a huge range of within-species genetic diversity so thousands of variants do exist.

In the 1970s, Chinese researchers discovered a mechanism which allowed the cross-breeding of rice to create new varieties, and more recently, genotype analysis and molecular plant breeding allows for almost unlimited mixing and matching of rice genes.  Even with this mechanism (cytoplasmic male sterility), rice breeding and selection was difficult because of the vast array of traits and it was difficult to select superior varieties against a back ground of unknown genetic diversity.  This why it became essential to find out more about the genetic diversity in the Oryza sativa (Asian rice) gene pool and investigate how the many diverse alleles connect with important rice traits. This was the ultimate purpose of the ambitious 3000 Rice Genomes Project,  with the idea that the more systematic use of genomic data could be used along with conventional rice breeding strategies to search for better adapted rice varieties.  Molecular plant breeding methods also allow new rice varieties to be developed within four to six years, rather than ten to twelve years using conventional plant breeding.

The 3000 Rice Genomes Project  (3K RGP)

The 3000 Rice Genomes Project is a collaborative project that carried out the sequencing of 3 024 Oryza sativa  (Asian) rice genomes selected from 89 countries in order to create as massive sequence dataset. From gene sequencing efforts, approximately 18.9 million single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in rice were discovered along with knowledge that the Oryza sativa gene pool into five varietal groups.  This meant that researchers at last understood the perplexing genomic diversity within O sativa.  

The 3K RGP project identified 29 million single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), 2.4 million small indels (small insertions and deletions in the genome) and over 90 000 structural variations that contribute to the rice variation. Many of the SNPS are linked to novel alleles (forms of genes) important for rice phenotypes (i.e. the way genes manifest themselves in the whole plant). Using pan-genome analyses, researchers identified more than 10 000 novel full-length protein-coding genes that allowed researchers to explain many previous events in rice breeding during domestication – and will help them advance the adaptive characteristics of new rice varieties.

The huge rice genomic data set is intended to be a resource for understanding the genetic variation in rice and for the discovery of genes associated with economically important traits. This data will serve as a foundation for large-scale discovery of novel alleles for important rice phenotypes using various bioinformatics and/or classical breeding approaches. The genomic sequences were lodged in the ( database.

The 3024 rice varieties and  lines chosen for sequencing in the 3K RGP included 2466 accessions from the rice gene bank collection at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and 534 accessions from the China National Crop Gene Bank (CNCGB) at the Institute of Crop Sciences, at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS). The work was carried out as a global public good and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology.

The 3K RGP was mooted as a major new approach in big-data-based crop research and digitalized plant breeding.  Because of the massive amount of data (100 TB) generated from the 3000 Rice Genomes Project, the DNAnexus platform was used to allow the integration of genetic data with other data types and has been effectively used in medical genomic research applications.  The DNAnexus platform combines cloud computing and bioinformatics, especially in a project “whose sheer volume and scope was unprecedented in the agricultural community, says DNAnexus. The genomic ‘big data’ approach creates many new rice selections for further testing in a fraction of the time that field testing and selection would take.

In 2014, the publication and release of this enormous data set was set to coincide with World Hunger Day to highlight one of the primary goals of 3K RGP  which was to develop resources that will aid in improving global food security, especially in the poorest areas of the world.

A typical genome mapping output graphic.  Source: Plant Science 242 (2015). Kurokawa et al. DOI:  10.1016/j.plantsci.2015.09.008

As part of the collaboration, seeds from each rice strain analysed by 3K RBP were stored the International Rice Genebank Collection housed at IRRI.  This ensured that the actual seeds and their genetic information remained coupled to provide genetically defined strains are available for developing the most appropriate hybrid strains for different rice growing environments, as well keeping track of field testing data. The Rice Galaxy online open resource for plant science is designed so that rice breeders with little computational knowledge can undertake sequence bioinformatics analyses by researches without computational expertise.

Rice growing in Africa. Internet source, May 2020.

What is Green Super Rice?

Green Super Rice (GSR) is set of 78 newly developed ‘super’ hybrid rice varieties bred for Asian and African small-holder farmers and developed from the 3000 Rice Genomes project.

Since 2008, AfricaRice has been involved in evaluating Chinese hybrid rice lines in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) through the GSR project to make Chinese rice cultivars (inbred and hybrid varieties) accessible to rice farmers in Africa and Asia with the hope that GSR varieties will benefit at least 20 million smallholder rice farmers and boost rice productivity and farmer incomes in the target regions. The target regions for the GSR project include nine Asian countries (Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan) and nine African countries (Mozambique, Tanzania, Rwanda, Liberia, Ethiopia, Uganda, Nigeria, Mali and Senegal).  GSR will also be tested in China, in Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces, and Guangxi Zhuang and Ningxia Hui autonomous regions of China.  In the Philippines, GSR farmers already have an estimated income advantage of more than USD 231 per hectare, says IRRI,  and that  growing these ‘super’ rice varieties now covers more than two million hectares in 11 countries. 

The GSR project has also been involved in training of almost 60 PHD and Masters students from 15 target countries through different Chinese institutions, IRRI and AfricaRice. More than 900 scientists from the country partners received advanced training on GSR breeding and crop management. Lastly, more than 3 000 farmers received short-term training on GSR seed production and crop management.

Testing of Africa-specific GSR varieties in Africa

Testing of Africa-specific GSR varieties in Africa was channelled through AfricaRice and the agricultural research entities of the target countries in Africa (Ethiopia, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda) and their rice growing associations of small-holder rice growers.  Africa’s average rice yields using conventional rice are around 2 tonnes per hectare, the lowest in the world. Developing the hybrid rice technology capacity of national partners, farmers, non-government organizations, and the private sector is a major component of the AfricaRice strategy.

A road map for Green Super Rice hybrid testing, release, and dissemination in Nigeria and Mali has been developed. By the end of 2014, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda had formally released new African GSR cultivars for testing, with Mali and Senegal having new GSR cultivars in the pipeline for testing release.   By 2018, another fifteen new African Super Green Rice varieties became available for testing by smallholder farmers in seven more Africa countries.  The aim was that, once fully tested GSR cultivars are available, the GSR seed will be given to the commercial sector in each country to scale-up production of Certified Seed for farmers.  Hopefully, as the Green Super Rice project involved philanthropic funding and publicly accessible gene banks, these hybrid varieties will indeed be a ‘gift’  to poor farmers and quality seed will be affordable.

Effective communication at all levels vital in a large multi-partner agricultural R&D project

Communication for this complex and long term project was very vital, and occurred firstly at an international level, involving international researchers and regional rice-breeding entities.  Main collaborators included the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and its partners like AfricaRice, plus US commercial biotech suppliers who supplied the molecular breeding technology and the funder, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  The initial 3000 Rice Genomics Project data was stored on the cloud to be accessible by any international researcher or plant breeder. Also, various online DNA platforms like Galaxy Rice enabled the communication of genomic data with rice breeders with little knowledge of software development and coding, so that they could work effectively with large genomic datasets.

Within Africa, the Green Super Rice project involved a link between IRRI and AfricaRice and down the line to the national agricultural research entities of the target countries (Ethiopia, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda).  Communication at farm level in Africa occurred through farmer participation in field trials, farmer’s days and information sharing. In other words, there would be no direct contact between Chinese researchers and the grass-roots African stakeholders, with the attendant language and cultural challenges so often experienced at the many Chinese Agricultural Technology Demonstration Centres in Africa. 

AfricaRice is also strengthening is collaboration with strengthening its collaboration with many additional partners, particularly through its participation in the Hybrid Rice Development Consortium (HRDC) coordinated by IRRI, with aims to strengthen collaboration between the private and public sector and improve hybrid rice technology dissemination. Africa’s Rice’s African national partners also acknowledge that capacity building is urgently needed to help farmers and seed producers adopt new ‘super rice’ technology.


Importing new hybrid rice varieties and South Africa’s Plant Health and Phytosanitary Policy

South Africa and new rice introductions

South Africa is not part of the Africa-wide endeavour to grow hybrid rice, mainly because South Africa is not a rice-growing nation. All the rice consumed in South Africa is imported.

Shelves of packaged rice brands in a South African supermarket, all based on imported rice

In 2012, a South African scientific study showed that there were areas where rice could be grown, but this could only be possible with irrigation. Interestingly, the major suitable area was in the hot arid lands along the Orange River in the Northern Cape. This area has a high temperature, abundant irrigation water and no frost.  However, it is still much cheaper for South Africa to buy rice than to set up an entire new agricultural sector.

If South Africa were to participate in trials for any new rice varieties, South Africa’s Plant Health and Phytosanitary Policy (2014) would become applicable. The Phytosanitary Policy (2014) notes that plants can harbour damaging pests and diseases and regulations govern the risks and ways to control the introduction and spread of these risks. Regulations govern living plants and parts thereof, including seeds.     The South African rights are based on the UN FAO’s regulations of 1990 and the World Trade Organisation Agreement of the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures.

The  South African Plant Breeders Rights Act 15 of 1976, protects the rights of breeders of new plant varieties. Although there is no direct link between the Agricultural Pests Act, 1983 and this Act, plants and seeds in international trade are subject to its terms. Unmanufactured material of plant origin (including grain) and those manufactured products that, by their nature or that of their processing, may create a risk for the introduction and spread of pests (FAO, 1990; revised IPPC, 1997; formerly plant product).

Can Chinese Green Super Rice save Africa?

Growing African rice varieties developed and supported by the AfricaRice organisation in Cote d’ Ivoire.

In sub-Saharan Africa there is a huge need for rice varieties which can cope with challenging African rice growing situations. New varieties of rice are regularly required to meet market requirements and environmental constraints, but they must be based on African rice germplasm adapted to African pests and diseases. Also, three-quarter of the most severe droughts in the last ten years have been in Africa, the continent which already has the lowest level of crop production and drought adaptive capacity. 

Generally, the rice demand in African exceeds production and large quantities of rice are imported at a huge cost.  

Also, in terms of  global food system, the 2008 food price crisis made the world more aware of constraints in global food production, with a threat of wide-spread starvation.  Following this crisis, the  growing improved rice varieties on a vast scale was promoted as a solution to global hunger. In sub-Saharan Africa there is a huge need for rice varieties that can cope with challenging African rice growing situations. New varieties of rice are regularly required to meet market requirements and environmental constraints, but they must be based on African rice breeding lines adapted to African pests and diseases. Three-quarter of the most severe droughts in the last ten years have been in Africa, the continent which already has the lowest level of crop production and drought adaptive capacity. 

Also, in terms of  global food system, the food price crisis in 2008 made the world more aware of constraints in global food production, with a threat of wide-spread starvation.    Following this crisis, the  growing improved rice varieties on a vast scale was promoted as a solution to global hunger. These ‘improved’ varieties are largely hybrid rice varieties produced either by conventional breeding methods or by molecular breeding.  

What is Chinese Green Super Rice (GSR

The term Green Super Rice (GSR) refers to a set of newly developed ‘super’ hybrid rice varieties bred in China and Africa to cope with many different and demanding growing conditions. GSR hybrid varieties are bred to produce high and stable yields and are more tolerant to pests, diseases, drought and other stresses. These rice varieties are intended to be highly suitable for small scale farmers in both Africa and Asia, with a hope to benefit at least 20 million smallholder rice farmers and boost rice productivity by 20 % in the target regions. Since 2008, the GSR project has bred 78 GSR varieties for 18 African and Asian countries. 

One type of genomic data product from the 3000 Rice Genomes Project

The GSR hybrid  rice breeding approach involved a complex molecular plant breeding to search through thousands of rice acquisitions using molecular methods and identifying genes which convey new properties. The molecular breeding method is also much faster than convention plant breeding. To create the set of GSR rice varieties, the genetic variation of thousands of Asian cultivated rice genomes from the 3000 Rice Genomes Project genomic data search was analysed for new traits.

Other successful African rice breeding projects  

African rice, Oryza glaberrima, has been cultivated for 3500 years and is well adapted to the African environment.  It is resistant to drought, the insect pest African rice gall midge (Orseolia oryzivora), Rice yellow mottle virus and blast disease. However, African rice has relatively low yields because it tends to fall over when grain heads are full and rice grains are lost. In general, the cultivation of African rice has been abandoned by African farmers in recent times for the cultivation of high-yield Asian varieties of Oryza sativa.  Asian varieties are poorly adapted to African conditions as their cultivation requires abundant water. Asian rice also cannot compete with African weeds due to their semi-dwarf phenotypes.

New Rice for Africa (NERICA) refers to a set of inter-specific rice hybrids developed by AfricaRice in 2008 to improve the yield of African rice and are based on Oryza glaberrima cultivars. AfricaRice is a leading pan-African rice research organization (NGO) committed to improving livelihoods in Africa through strong science and effective partnerships, and was established in 1971, all as stated on their website.  AfricaRice is also a CGIAR Research Centre, meaning is it part of a global research partnership for a ‘food-secure future’. 

These new African rice varieties, which are suited to drylands, were distributed and sown on more than 200 000 hectares in several African countries, notably Guinea, Nigeria, Mali, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, and Uganda, according to the AfricaRice.  Also, in 2019, AfricaRice, along with African national partners, launched a project called ‘Sustainable and Diversified Rice-based Farming Systems’ in Africa, under the ‘Putting Research into Use for Nutrition, Sustainable Agriculture and Resilience (PRUNSAR)’ program co-funded by the European Union (EU) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). 

High yielding hybrid rice growing in a field trial in Africa

Although these projects represented a major advance, they are still projected to fall short of meeting the growing demand for rice as an Africa food staple. With these new cultivars, new GSR varieties and with more efficient irrigating methods, there is now a greater possibility of growing rice in drier conditions than traditionally considered suitable. However, expectations should not be ‘over-hyped’ as there are many failures along the way. Also, hybrid crop varieties are controversial in that farmers must buy new seed each year to get the same results, rather than keep back their own seed. In many cases, poor farmers cannot afford this seed and may get into debt if coerced into purchasing this type of superior seed.

What happened to the secret 2018 Chinese rice growing project in Mpumalanga?

Global food price crisis of 2008 had a lasting impact on rice as a staple

The food price crisis in 2008 made the world more aware of constraints in the global food system. In 2998 grain commodities were in short supply and rice exports from rice producing countries were stopped. Food prices skyrocketed.  People went hungry.  Some saw growing improved rice varieties on a vast scale as a solution to global hunger, especially for a future human population of 9 billion.

In sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, rice production is constantly under the pressure and there is a need to produce varieties for challenging African rice growing situations. Plant breeding is key for adapting cropping systems to climate change and other extreme crop growing conditions.  There are also now very sophisticated molecular plant breeding methods that can lead to new cultivars in a very short time, and local African expertise does not always exist to use these methods. Molecular breeding expertise is what the Chinese Green Super Rice programme has been able to offer the world  to develop ‘super varieties’.

Chinese Green Super Rice (GSR) programme goes super-nova

Chinese scientists from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have developed a suite of 55 superior new rice cultivars, collectively referred to as Super Green Rice (SGR).  This technically advanced research led by Chinese scientists with a global network of collaborators networked through the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP) led by CGIAR.  CGIAR is a global research partnership for a food security.  The genetic work to develop Green Super Rice varieties was originally published in the science journal, Nature, in 2018. 

Green Super Rice (GSR) can produce high and stable yield with fewer inputs like water, fertilizers, and pesticides. These varieties have the tolerance to different abiotic stresses such as drought, floods, salinity, and other stresses.

Chinese field scientist from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) assessing Green Super Rice varieties.

To create new rice varieties, the genetic variation of thousands of Asian cultivated rice genomes from the 3000 Rice Genomes Project collection was analysed. These rice genetic accessions are in the public domain, so anyone can use them for research.  As of March 2018, 75 new GSR varieties had been developed from this genetic library, each for a slightly different set of characteristics and responses to growing conditions.  Around fifteen new Super Green Rice varieties became available in 2018 for testing by smallholder farmers in seven Africa countries, including South Africa and in eight Asian countries including China.   Although South Africa is mentioned, there does not seem to be any reliable information on the testing of any new GSR in South Africa.

A seemingly secret $19 million (ZAR300 million) Chinese project to grow rice in Mpumalanga was uncovered in 2018 by local people and political parties. There is almost no information about this project, only intrigue.

Is a $ 19 million Chinese project planning to grow Chinese Green Super Rice in South Africa?

Articles in 2018 by City Press, BusinessTech and fin24 mentined irregularities surrounding the Chinese rice project and its massive $19 million budget.  A key aspect of the reporting was a fight over two parcels of tribal land awarded illegally to Chinese companies by the Thaba Chweu local municipality to grow rice and build a power station in Mpumalanga, and that this row could derail the projects.  Apparently a 50 year lease was issued for the land by the Thaba Chweu local municipality in Mpumalanga.

Local people reacted with anger at the lack of transparency in the way the project was being conducted and the way that ‘their land’ was being ‘given’ to foreigners. The localities of the project were cited as both Bushbuckridge and the Thaba Chweu local municipality, both in Mpumalanga province in South Africa. 

List of municipalities in Mpumalanga province, South Africa. Wikipedia. Thaba Chweu  and Bushbuckridge Local Municipalities are part of the Ehlanzeni District Municipality according to South Africa’s municipal system.

Fin24 states that Africa Sino Project, apparently running the rice aspect of the Chinese investment, planned to bring its own rice experts to the country and transfer skills to local communities. That is, whether locals want these skills or not.  It seems like no consultation was undertaken in advance of project activities starting up.

One of the press reports mentions that the project will “deploy new rice cultivars able to grow with less water and can grow under normal irrigated conditions rather than in wetlands or rice paddies”. These cultivars must surely be the new Chinese Super Green Rice cultivars. 

Rice has never been produced commercially in South Africa, although early research indicated that some very small areas might be suitable. But with Green Super Rice, this could change.  And any new agricultural development with the new Chinese Super Rice varieties that helped South Africa’s small-scale farmers grow more crops would be a good thing.  So, why the secrecy?  Why is this investment not being hailed as a major breakthrough in Chinese-South African agricultural relations in Mpumalanga? 

Is it the $19 million (ZAR300 million) Chinese investment that clouds the details of the project? 

Mpumalanga province bedevilled by corruption

The Mpumalanga province is bedevilled by corruption and financial mismanagement, with the Thaba Chweu local municipality deeply involved in maladministration, as revealed by a 2018 forensic financial report. Thaba Chweu  is deeply in debt and struggling to pay off a R400 million loan to Eskom, South Africa’s power utility. Consequently the municipality is engulfed in service delivery failures and violent protests and also received a qualified Auditor-General report for the past eight years.

It sounds risky to be dangling $19 million (ZAR 300 million) investment in front ofa reputation of financial mismanagement.  

Growing Chinese rice in South Africa a ruse?

The Thaba Chweu Chinese rice growing project does not show up in official Mpumalanga agricultural planning documents. The Mpumalanga State Of Readiness For The Planting Season 2017/2018 Report to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) and its Parliamentary Committee does not mention  any rice planting activities although their reporting period overlaps the time that the Chinese Mpumalanga rice project appears in the online media in South Africa.

Two formal Agricultural Research Council (ARC)  annual reports (2016/2017 and 2018/2019) also do not mention any form of rice planting, nor Green Super Rice nor any Chinese agricultural investment in new rice cultivation. The ARC is South Africa’s national agricultural research agency.  They would surely be trumpeting any breakthrough in a legitimate Chinese-South African agricultural partnership.

If this was a legitimate investment deal, surely this would form a long progression of leading article in the media. The fact that the deal is not more widely celebrated implies that protocols have been bypassed in some way.

Or that the project has collapsed. There is no more press reporting after May 2018.

Although the  Thaba Chweu local municipality is mentioned as the locality of the ‘investment’ and municipal land is being handed over to the investors, this is could have been private deal between Chinese business interests, the Thaba Chweu municipality and unknown business persons.  

The production of rice for local consumption and export faces a very real snag in that rice needs a number of processing steps depending on how it will be used, including the par-boiling process.  Bulk rice also has to be stored and the infrastructure to do this is not available in South Africa.  Hindering any new investment is that rice can still be imported into South Africa at a reasonable cost.  

One wonders what types of processing infrastructure would be set up by the Chinese investors for any rice had they produced rice on the Mpumalanga land.

But of course, this would not be a rice growing project to supply local markets. It would be a rice growing project to supply those Chinese workers with food, the workers who would be brought into build the power station unit and the luxury hotels.

There are still very clear issues about the phytosanitary arrangements of bringing foreign seeds into South Africa. Even if SA does not grow rice, bugs and diseases have a funny way of spreading to other crops, or even to rice growing projectgs in Mozambique.

Opinion Piece: The rural areas of South Africa no longer a safety net or ‘home’? – Sue Jean Taylor

The land is the ‘insurance’ for rural farmers in Africa

Farming in African countries is characterised by vulnerability, and small-holder farmers farming small pieces of land. Almost everyone is farming, and there is very little hope of most rural people being able to move out of farm work into better paid occupations, although this does happen from time to time. These rural farmers need to be protected and supported in many ways, to ensure that they can successfully farm and remain on the land.

Disasters are common-place in African rural areas, and it is well-known that most farmers and poorer households in Africa are not insured in the formal sense and rely on various local safety nets to recover from disasters and setbacks. If disasters occur too frequently, they cannot recover and may become destitute, or leave the land to try and make a new life in nearby towns and cities.

The lack of a robust rural development programme in South Africa

In South Africa, the land is not fertile on the whole and most of the country is arid or semi-arid. The country does not drive a massive small-scale farmer programme, possibly because of the land ownership issue and its legacy.  Yet, there is a great land hunger in some of the rural areas, accompanied by land invasions and invasions into protected areas. In other areas, the land is so heavily degraded by poor farming methods and overstocking, that it would be almost impossible to recover this land as quality agricultural land. (see below).

Land degradation in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Image by SJ Taylor, 2016.

Massive urbanisation process underway, people leaving the land

In many of the rural areas in South Africa, for example in the tribal lands of the Eastern Cape, crops are no longer being grown.  In some cases, tribal land is being sold for housing in many areas, reducing the amount of quality land for farming.  Not surprisingly, most people in South Africa no longer want to farm on the whole – they want secure obs and an urban lifestyle, to the extent that many municipalities cannot cope with the arrival of thousands of destitute work-seekers, who also need housing, schools, water and sanitation – yet cannot pay for services or buy a home.

Traffic flowing through the small town of Marikana, in the Rustenburg Local Municipality, South Africa. SJ Taylor, 2018.

In South Africa, the rural areas in South Africa once provided a social safety net for migrant workers who travelled to the big cities. These workers sent remittances to their rural homestead and returned to wives and families once a year.  When they could no longer work in the cities or mines, they returned ‘home’ to the rural areas and lived there until the end of their days.  However, this no longer seems to be the case. In South Africa currently, the rural areas and small towns in the former homelands are now so under-developed through lack of investment and sound governance, that they no longer fulfill the safety net role. It is now that jobs in urban areas are the safety nets for the rural areas, and not the other way around. For many urban workers, they do maintain strong links with the rural areas of ‘home’ and manage to balance a rural, traditional way of life and a modern, professional life in the cities.

Options to create small-scale farmer resilience – various types of ‘insurance’ for rural farmers in Africa

However, much thought has been given on how to provide rural people in Africa with some form of ‘insurance’ – perhaps paid for through government schemes.  Not sure how extensively this has been implemented, if at all.  Most countries in Africa have very viable and forward thinking agricultural sector that focus on subsistence and small-scale farmers, and creating resilience and new opportunities for these farmers. Of course challenges remain – notably issues like droughts and floods, and a lack of access to market information and markets. Other farmers provide their own resilience through cash crops, and in Ethiopia, growing Eucalyptus is a valuable activity for farmers, and one sees evidence of this on the farms, and also in the cities where the Eucalyptus poles are sold (see photograph below).

Eucalyptus poles on sale at a roadside depot in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photograph by SJ Taylor, 2015.

Health surveillance at South Africa’s many borders, Sue Jean Taylor

Borders are regions of great stress, where illegality, human trafficking and the smuggling of goods occur on a daily basis, along with exploitation of vulnerable cross-border travellers, often to enrich border officials .  Some borders are more busy and notorious than others, and in South Africa this would be the Beit Bridge border post with Zimbabwe.  The Beit bridge border post and the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa is a high stress border with the number of needy travellers posing a challenge for both the town and surrounding farming landscape as desperate work seekers try and settle with some work to earn enough money to progress on to Johannesburg. As well as the actual transit through border posts, border towns receive new travellers who are often destitute, and often this places towns like Mussina under considerable stress to accommodate desperate persons, often women.

Busy transport routes moving hundreds of thousands of travellers. Image SJ Taylor

This stress is related to the level of need in the travellers, as well as their legal or illegal status, and other medical conditions, for example, women about to give birth. These issues would be important for disaster planning at borders.   

Because of the high volumes of travellers passing through this border, one wonders about the efficiency of inspections of people and goods. For example, it is possible to bring highly endangered Warburgia salutaris (the highly endangered pepper bark tree) through Beit Bridge into South Africa for the medicinal plant trade, seemingly undetected. This type of border control negligence also has important phytosanitary implications: we are already experiencing the Polyphagous Shot Hole Borer infestation of South Africa’s trees because of a beetle which probably came into the country (legally)  on wooden pallets that no-one checked.

We are also seeing very worrying trends in the rapid spread of novel zoonotic diseases which are diseases that can cross from animal hosts to human hosts, mutating along the way. A good example of this is the new corona virus that the UN health agency has formally called  Corona Virus Disease “COVID-19” and which represents a “very grave threat” for the world but the World Health Organisations says although this is a global health emergency, there is a “realistic chance” of stopping it.

The new Corona virus COVID-19, first identified in Wuhan, China in 2019.

South Africa has many informal border crossings with its neighbours and let’s hope for the spread of new diseases, that anyone traveling through any border and who is seriously ill, will be too sick to travel far. Let’s also hope they did not sit on a cramped bus for 13 hours in transit to the border!

The question remains, is there adequate disease surveillance at Beit Bridge or other regional borders should persons show unusual symptoms, for example fever (possible COVID-19 infection) or haemorrhagic symptoms arrived (as in Ebola)?  Are border officials at the border trained to recognise new diseases in travellers? COVID-19 may be very subtle in its manifestation, and detecting fever in hot African countries may not be adquate for surveillance.

A glimpse of the politics of grain imports in times of famine, by Sue Jean Taylor

During the global food price crisis of 2008, Zimbabwe was noted in refusing maize shipments from South Africa as they were GMO maize. Most of South Africa’s commercial maize production is now GMO. However, in 2020, the Zimbabwean government has backed down on this stance.  They have been forced to purchase maize from South Africa to avert what could be its worst famine. Zimbabwe is battling its worst drought in 40 years and is in the midst of an economic collapse. An estimated 5.5 million of Zimbabwe’s just over 14 million people are now food insecure and require emergency cereal (maize grain) assistance . The  Zimbabwean government’s temporary measures to try to feed the country’s people included the removal of import permits for maize grain, maize meal, and wheat flour, with wheat flour to be placed on the Open General Import License list. At this time, there are also temporary changes to the way imports into Zimbabwe are controlled, and this could have long term positive outcomes is continued.

No doubt policy makers, customs officials and agricultural economists will be watching these developments with interest, as blockages of all types of goods at SADC’s borders remains a constraint to regional free trade.

While genetically modified maize imports from South Africa are being allowed, the incoming maize will be  carefully quarantined and milled into maize meal, the national starch staple of Zimbabwe, and will not be planted to avoid contaminating local maize land-races. 

Harvest of local maize (non-GMO) in Zimbabwe. Image sourced from Internet.

Historically, Zimbabwe’s policy with regard to GMO crops is to only import genetically modified-free corn, not because of food safety concerns, but seed safety concerns. Strategically, they do not want to be dependent on seed from multinational companies.


Lloyd Phillips (2019). ‘Opportunity for SA to increase grain exports to Zimbabwe’November 26, 2019.

Ray Ndlovu / Bloomberg (2020). January 31, 2020. Zimbabwe quietly lifts ban on genetically modified corn imports from South Africa in bid to avert famine. Sourced

The need for local seed banks in Africa’s rural that can survive disasters. Sue Jean Taylor

A plea for more local and village seed banks  as part of disaster recovery planning in Mozambique

A quick scan of research and online agricultural fact sheets for Mozambique indicates that the mechanisms of  agricultural recovery from the impact of a large scale climatic disaster like that from Cyclone Idai has not been envisaged as an actual eventuality, even as realisation grows that climate change will bring extreme more of these weather events (Arndt and Ringler, 2019).

In March 2019, existing crop plantings, just ready for harvest, were devastated by the floods resulting from Cyclone Idai, with an immediate situation of food insecurity for rural households. Livestock has also vanished during the floods, and herds will have to be replaced. As well as this, road and other infrastructure in these provinces were destroyed, and the flood waters and displacement of topsoil will undoubtedly affect the soil structure for planting in seasons to come. Mozambique is not alone in experiencing these disasters: the whole of Southern Africa and East Africa is highly vulnerable now.

Maize harvest in Zimbabwe. Image sourced from Internet.

Crop landrace seeds for next season lost

Because of the devastation of 750 000 hectares of planted lands, the seeds for land races of local maize and other crops have also been lost, along with the crop production itself.  This means that there will be no local seed to plant the fields next season, yet the subsistence agricultural sector will need to recover. The next growing season in Mozambique starts with the first rains in September 2020  in the south and December in the north. The question is, what seeds will be used for these plantings? This is a time when previous work to build up crop gene banks in Mozambique will pay off.  For example, drought-tolerant cowpea landraces have been deposited in a Mozambican gene bank, as well as other work to gene bank local seed varieties in Mozambique.

The recovery of subsistence agriculture in the affected provinces

While in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, governments and humanitarian organisations are responding address both the immediate crisis and minimise the long-term adverse effects on livelihoods and development prospects of those directly affected and those impacted indirectly (Arndt and Ringler, 2019).  How the subsistence agricultural sector will be restored to production again after the cyclone needs some serious thought, as will be the long term resilience of this sector in Mozambique and neighbouring countries.

Subsistence farming needs more innovation to increase its disaster resilience. Image sourced from Internet.


Joala R (2016). Beira Corridor smallholders concerned about impact of agricultural investment on Mozambique’s seed regimes.  Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS).

Arndt Cl.,and Ringler C. (2019). Cyclone Idai shows why long-term disaster resilience is so crucial. Reliefweb. .

Cyclone Idai 2019 and some more discussion on preparedness in the Beira region of Mozambique. Sue Taylor

2020 and looking back at a disaster not fully planned for

As we all know, floods in Mozambique resulted in extensive crop losses, raising the specter of critical food shortages in affected central and southern regions, and very high prices of any food items that are available from other less affected regions. Harvesting of the 2019 main summer season cereal crops in affected provinces (Manica, Sofala and Zambezia) was  expected to start at the end of March in southern areas and progress further north until the end of June, but now no harvests are possible.

Livestock have vanished during the floods, and herds will have to be replaced. As well as this, road and other infrastructure in these provinces was destroyed, and the flood waters and displacement of topsoil will undoubtedly affect the soil structure for planting in seasons to come.

Small scale farmer in Mozambique. Image sourced from Internet.

In a Situation Report on Mozambique: Cyclone Idai and Floods, as of 2 April 2019, OCHA noted that in Mozambique, more than 715 000 hectares of crops were destroyed at the beginning of the main harvest period, raising concerns for rising food security. Nearly 400,000 people were  reached with food assistance in the early stages of this disaster, while another 10,000 people receiving ready-to-eat meals in Beira City. The challenge will be to assist people with food through the winter period May to October 2019, when the next round of planting can take place, to be ready for harvesting again in April 2020. The main growing season in  Mozambique starts with the first rains in September in the south and December in the north.

A quick scan of research and online agricultural fact sheets for Mozambique shows that recovering from the impact of a large scale climatic disaster like that from Cyclone Idai has not been envisaged, even as the realization grows that climate change will bring extreme weather events (Arndt and Ringler, 2019). While the understanding that these events will happen, the full impact of a  cyclone on Mozambique’s agricultural sector, and the challenges of recovering from a cyclone, do not seem to have been fully planned for.  In fact, the question remains, how does one plan for this type of extensive and severe event, especially in the type of flat landscape that is typical of most of Mozambique.

This does not mean that there were no plans, just that they were overwhelmed by the cyclone. And this cyclone was not just a once-off emergency: this is likely to happen much more frequently, in fact is likely to become ‘the new normal’ and more investment in research, farmer networks and markets, emergency support and insurance, as well as infrastructure (concrete or ‘green’ infrastructure) needs to be made.

The Beira Corridor is an important region for smallholder farmers, and a number of agricultural programmes are underway in this area (which has a partial overlap with the pathway of Cyclone Idai) to improve agricultural production (Joala, 2016). Planning for extreme devastation by a cyclone can hardly have been part of their strategic planning. The Beira Corridor is one of six development corridors highlighted in Mozambique’s strategic investment plan. It is one of Southern Africa’s main transport routes – a road and rail network links large parts of Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique to the port of Beira on the Indian Ocean. About 15 % of the arable land (1.47 million ha) is under smallholder farming and 25 000 hectares under commercial farming, with 88% dedicated to sugar cane, of which 80% is irrigated. Key crops produced in the Beira Corridor are maize, sweet potato, sorghum and rice (Joala, 2016).

Small scale farmers in Mozambique. Image sourced from Internet.

Small scale agriculture forms the basis of Mozambique’s farming

Agriculture in Mozambique is for the most part based on small, hand-cultivated units often farmed by women-headed households. About 97 per cent of production comes from some 3.2 million subsistence farms averaging 1.2 hectares in size. The smallholder sector in Mozambique is characterized by holdings of multiple small plots, multiple crops, rain-fed water, traditional varieties, low intensity fertilizer and pesticide use and little or no mechanization, and low productivity. Most households diversify their  livelihoods activities to cope with low productivity and income. The majority of small holder farmers practice extensive shifting cultivation, only about one-third sell any crop output, and almost two-thirds live in households that lack food security. Cassava and maize form the main subsistence production of the country, with about 30 other crops also being grown, often as cash crops (Walker et al, 2006).

The recovery of agriculture in the affected provinces

While in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, governments and humanitarian organisations must respond quickly and robustly to Cyclone Idai and  address both the immediate crisis and minimise the long-term adverse effects on livelihoods and development prospects of those directly affected and those impacted indirectly (Arndt and Ringler, 2019).  The impact of the floods are expected to result in an increased prevalence and severity of food insecurity in central provinces over the next six months, especially for households that have lost their food crops and livestock, and income opportunities from crop sales.

The immediate humanitarian interventions are focused on search and rescue, but the provision of shelter and the delivery of food aid, following the recession of floodwaters, interventions to support agricultural households is required in order to restore their productive capacities, in consideration of likely losses of productive assets and agricultural equipment (FAO Country Brief, Mozambique 20 March 2019).[1]  How the agricultural sector will be restored to production again after the cyclone needs some serious thought.

Family farming Mozambique, the mainstay of rural life. Image sourced from Internet.

The availability of suitable seeds for replanting

From the PLAAS article by Joala (2016), it is clear that much debate has occurred about the government of Mozambique’s quest to improve the productivity of its agricultural sector using modern varieties and chemical fertilizers has been met with some resistance. This is at the same time that the farmers themselves need tried and tested seeds that can withstand the harsh effects of climate change. They do not trust the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ seed varieties and unaffordable fertilizers. There have also been opposition to a national seed certification scheme and protecting plant varieties and breeders’ rights, with not much being done at national level to protect local crop landraces. It may happen that  the private sector’s  ‘improved seeds’  will be  stealthily deployed under the cover of the Cyclone Idai crisis,  despite local resistance.

Whether or not the subsistence agricultural sector will be able to recover from seeds varieties kept by local farmers in other areas and shared, is questionable. Following the recent floods, the land races of local maize and other crops will also have been lost, along with the crop production itself. PLAAS also mentions that the Mozambican government’s promotion of the commercial sector simply ignores the potential role that small-scale farmers can play in agricultural research and development, thus completely discarding all the knowledge and techniques accumulated by Mozambican farmers over the years.

Also, potentially, a new planting schedule for the next growing season will be needed that takes into account new silt deposits and residual moisture, following the subsidence of the floods. What types of agricultural production assistance will be needed, along with training, to replant either the same crops or different crops, to make use of the new post-cyclone agricultural situation?

Productive small scale farming in Mozambique, the backbone of rural life. Image from the Internet.



Joala R (2016). Beira Corridor smallholders concerned about impact of agricultural investment on Mozambique’s seed regimes.  Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS).

Arndt Cl., and Ringler C. (2019). Cyclone Idai shows why long-term disaster resilience is so crucial. Reliefwqeb.

Walker T., Pitoro R., Tomo A.,  itoe I., Salencia R., Mahanzule, C.D and Mazuau F. (2006). Priority Setting for public sector agricultural research in Mozambique with the National Agricultural Survey Data. LIAM, Research Report Series.

Case Study: The Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains of Lesotho: linking livelihoods and food emergencies in a vulnerable region.

SJ Taylor, AfroMont Independent. Researching Global Change in African Mountains

Sue Taylor has formed AfroMont Independent, a research entity that will follow on from the University of Pretoria’s Swiss funded AfroMont science writing project. AfroMont Independent aims at developing concepts, sourcing funding and carrying out collaborative research that will benefit Africa’s mountains and mountain people.

Cash study – Lesotho and food emergencies

This case study focuses on two linked issues. First, the growing vulnerability of an African mountainous country, Lesotho, to droughts and famines, and secondly, the vulnerability the Maloti Drakensberg catchment (of great importance to the region) to catchment degradation and climate change. The Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains form most of the land surface of Lesotho and these mountains are the source of most of South Africa’s water, as well as water for Namibia, Botswana and for Lesotho itself. Lesotho is already beginning to experience the impacts of climate change (Ziervogel and Calder 2003; Ziervogel 2004), but the immediate risk to livelihoods and the catchment is land degradation and its impact on catchment functioning (Olutayo, 2012: 140). 

Mountain livelihoods within Lesotho

Lesotho is perhaps one of the few mountainous regions in Africa where the population is declining, particularly in the more remote regions. Land degradation and droughts are occurring more frequently in Lesotho and recurrent food emergencies typically put between 400 000 and 700 000 people at risk. The Government of Lesotho has declared several states of emergency (in 2002, 2004 and 2007) relating to failed harvests, with the worst being during the recent 2014 – 2017 El Niño linked drought.  The Lesotho government is trying to overcome these difficulties by putting new measures in place to modernise the agricultural systems (Mokotjo and Kalusopa, 2010).

Interventions – Out migration as a survival strategy

Labour migration into South Africa has been an important livelihood strategy for Lesotho for decades, with the South African economy absorbing many thousands of young Basotho men and women over the years (ACP Lesotho, 2010).  In 2010, remittances formed 26% of Lesotho’s GDP (Migration Policy Institute, 2011). Although there are no accurate figures of the number of Basotho living and working in South Africa, the South African government has estimated 500 000 persons, about 25 % of the Lesotho population (at the 2011 census). Thus, the economy of South Africa has become the ‘safety net’ for Lesotho. However, the out-migration of able-bodied men and women, as well as the impact of HIV/AIDS, has reduced the agricultural workforce to such an extent that viable agriculture, particularly in remote regions, has become almost impossible, compounding the many food emergencies (Workman and Ureksoy, 2017; De Waal and Whiteside, 2003).

Photograph above (SJ Taylor). The small town of Ficksburg, South Africa, part of an important transport and migration corridor between Lesotho and South African job opportunities. The Maloti Drakensberg Mountains of Lesotho can be seen in the distance.

Regional livelihoods supported by water from the Maloti-Drakensberg

The future of Lesotho and the region are intricately coupled. Lesotho is landlocked within South Africa, most of South Africa, Lesotho and Namibia’s fresh water comes from Lesotho’s mountain catchments, and this water supports around 45 million people (Taylor et al, 2016).  An immediate concern is that the catchments within Lesotho are in a state of semi-destruction because of poor land management. In terms of climate change, future changes to Lesotho’s high altitude catchments could include complexities beyond just precipitation and temperature changes. For example, increased  tree  cover  driven  by  rising  CO2 could  have  adverse impacts  on  stream flows. Similarly, hotter conditions and increasingly dry vegetation leads to increased risk of fire and this may further damage the vegetation cover in Maloti-Drakensberg catchments. 

Challenges and lesson learnt

The mountainous Kingdom of Lesotho is experiencing growing vulnerability as a food insecure nation because of under-development, land degradation, HIV/AIDS, and an increased frequency of drought possibly linked to climate change. Rural livelihood struggles throughout Lesotho have resulted in various coping strategies, the most significant being the number of Basotho labour migrants living and working in South Africa. South Africa has become an economic safety net for Lesotho.  Lesotho also relies heavily on donor support, e.g. from USAID and the United Nations.  Water provisioning by the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountain catchments to the southern African region of South Africa and Namibia is strategically important, and is already at risk from catchment degradation, and this risk may increase because of climate change.

Conclusion and recommendations

In preparation for climate change, urgent measures are needed to address the protection, restoration and sustainable management of high altitude catchments in the Maloti-Drakensberg of Lesotho.  Also, in Lesotho, land tenure needs to be urgently resolved so that landowners can invest in protecting their own land and thus avoid further damage to Lesotho’s mountain catchment areas. In protecting high altitude catchments, both the mountain livelihoods of the Basotho in the Maloti-Drakensberg, as well as the water security of the wider Southern African region, will be secured.


ACP. 2010. Country overview, Lesotho. ACPOBS/2010/PUB11.

DE WAAL A. and WHITESIDE A. 2003. New Variant famine:  AIDS and food crisis in southern Africa. The Lancet, 362.October 11, 2003. Sourced online at

European Union (EU). 2015. Improved Agricultural Production for Vulnerable Households in Lesotho. Delegation of the European Union to the Kingdom of Lesotho.

LESOTHO NAPA. 2007.  Kingdom of Lesotho. National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA).  Sourced online at

MOKOTJO W. and KALUSOPA T. 2010. Evaluation of the Agricultural Information Service (AIS) in Lesotho. International Journal of Information Management. 30 (4): 350-356

OLUTAYO O.A. 2012.  Mountain Watershed in Lesotho: Water Quality, Anthropogenic Impacts and Challenges. In: Krecek J., Haigh M.J., Hofer T., Kubin E. (eds) Management of Mountain Watersheds. Springer, Dordrecht. DOI

SNC. 2011. The Second National Communication (SNC) (for South Africa) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (South Africa). Eds G.F. Midgley, B. van Wilgen and B. Mantlana.  The South African Department of Environment (DEA). See link below.


BARKER N. 2016. The Drakensberg Escarpment as the Great Supplier of Water to South Africa. Eds  Gregory B. Greenwood and J.F. Schroder Jr. Mountain Water and Ice. Elsevier. Published as an e-book in November 2016.

WORKMAN C.L. and UREKSOY H. 2017. Water insecurity in a syndemic context: Understanding the psychoemotional stress of water insecurity in Lesotho, Africa. Social Science & Medicine. 179 (2017) 52e60.

Ziervogel G, Calder R. 2003.  Climate variability and rural livelihoods: assessing the impact of seasonal climate forecasts in Lesotho. Area, 35: 403–417. doi:10.1111/j.0004-0894.2003.00190.x

Ziervogel G. 2004. Targeting seasonal climate forecasts for integration into household level decisions: the case of smallholder farmers in Lesotho. The Geographical Journal. Volume 170(1): 6 – 21.