HERMAKONO, Guinea – The seeds are a marvel, producing bountiful, aromatic rice crops resistant to drought, pests and disease.
But a decade after their introduction, they have spread to only a tiny fraction of the land here in West Africa where they could help millions of farming families escape poverty.
At a time when philanthropists like Bill Gates have become entranced by the possibility of a Green Revolution for Africa, the New Rices for Africa, as scientists call the wonder seeds, offer a clear warning.
Even the most promising new crop varieties will not by themselves bring the plentiful harvests that can end poverty. New ways to get seeds into the hands of farmers are needed, as well as broader investment in the basic ingredients of a farm economy: roads, credit and farmer education, among others.
Developed with financing from wealthy countries and private foundations, the New Rices for Africa, or NERICAs, are unpatented and may be grown by anyone.
Yet there is a severe shortage of them in a region where both the private and the agricultural sectors are woefully undeveloped.
“This is a story repeated thousands of times all over Africa,” said Joseph Devries, who is the head of seed development for a joint effort by the Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates foundations to jump-start farm productivity in Africa.
“You have farmers who are very willing adopters of new technologies and want to raise yields,” he added, “but are not getting access to seed, fertilizer and small-scale irrigation.”
Finding a sustainable way to supply farmers with seed, he said, “is emerging as the Holy Grail for agricultural development.”
Here in West Africa, where rice is a staple crop, the African Development Bank is financing a $34 million program in seven countries to spur wider use of the new rice seeds. But the obstacles are daunting.
Farmers typically lack credit to buy seed and fertilizer. And the agricultural economy itself suffers from a lack of investment.
Foreign aid for agriculture has plunged over the past two decades.
And African governments — some, like Guinea, endowed with natural resources and cursed with corruption — have too often spent less of that wealth than they might have on rural development.
Decent roads to move crops to market are scarce.
So are storage facilities to preserve harvests and crop insurance to protect farmers from drought, flood or bumper yields that perversely cause prices to collapse. All can wipe out the income farmers need to provide reliable demand to seed companies, making sale and distribution of the improved seeds a high-risk venture.
Across the region, a handful of private companies in Nigeria and Benin have begun to multiply and market the new rice varieties.
Here in Guinea, where there is not a single seed company, the government is now working with farmers to expand the supply of seed.
Villagers here in Hermakono first enviously spotted the new rices growing in a neighboring community’s field. In 2006, after writing to Guinea’s Agriculture Ministry, they got their first small store of the seeds.
So precious were they that as the first crop grew heavy with grain, the villagers took turns standing watch in the fields.
“We divided into small groups to guard it so nobody would steal even one stalk,” said Goulou Camara, a farmer.
Only about 200,000 African farmers are sowing the new rices on just 5 percent of the land where they could thrive, according to the Africa Rice Center, an international research institution based in Benin that developed the new rices in the mid-1990s.
“If we don’t develop the infrastructure, there’s no way we’ll attain the Green Revolution,” said Monty Jones, the plant breeder whose groundbreaking research led to creation of the new rices.
“How do you bring the NERICAs to farmers? How do you get farmers to know the seeds exist?”
Jones now leads the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, based in Ghana.
He also serves on the board of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a nonprofit group financed with an initial $150 million from the Gates and Rockefeller foundations.
The alliance intends to invest $23 million to promote the distribution of promising seeds.
Jones, 55, who was born into Sierra Leone’s Creole elite, said he decided to go into the agricultural sciences when as a teenager he heard news of rioting over rice shortages in West Africa.
At age 39, he was put in charge of a team breeding upland rain-fed rice varieties at the West Africa Rice Development Agency, now the Africa Rice Center.
For more than a generation, scientists had unsuccessfully sought to combine the hardy African rice species with high-yield Asian species.
His team overcame the obstacles and produced the first new rices more than a decade ago.