By Dieneba Deme
BAGUINEDA, Mali, Oct 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When rice farmers started producing yields nine times larger than normal in the Malian desert near the famed town of Timbuktu a decade ago, a passerby could have mistaken the crop for another desert mirage.
Rather, it was the result of an engineering feat that has left experts in this impoverished nation in awe - but one that has yet to spread widely through Mali's farming community.
"We must redouble efforts to get political leaders on board," said Djiguiba Kouyaté, a coordinator in Mali for German development agency GIZ.
With hunger a constant menace, Malians are cautiously turning to a controversial farming technique, known as rice intensification, to adapt to the effects of climate change.
The method, pioneered in Madagascar in 1983, has raised hopes that Mali's small-scale rice farmers might be able to increase their productivity to meet the country's gargantuan appetite for the grain.
Consumption of the staple stood at about 72 kg (163 lb) of rice per person in 2014, according to the latest data Mali's National Directorate of Statistics has made public - and demand is continuing to grow.
Dubbed the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), the new rice production method involves planting fewer seeds of traditional rice varieties and taking care of them following a strict regime.
Seedlings are transplanted at a very young age and spaced widely. Soil is enriched with organic matter, and must be kept moist, though the system uses less water than traditional rice farming.
SRI is used on both irrigated and non-irrigated land, meaning it is possible to cultivate rice even in Mali's desert, pilots conducted by the U.S. Agency for International Development have shown.
Up to 20 million farmers now use rice intensification in 61 countries, including in nearby Sierra Leone, Senegal and Ivory Coast, said Norman Uphoff, a senior advisor at the SRI International Network and Resources Center at Cornell University in the United States.
Rice plants grown following the method live longer because, given more space, more oxygen and less water, their roots grow bigger and deeper, so they are more resilient to drought and don't deteriorate under flooding, he said.
But, despite its success, the technique has been embraced with varying degrees of enthusiasm from country to country. That's because it competes with the improved hybrid and inbred rice varieties that agricultural corporations sell, Uphoff said by phone.
"Corporate agriculture has a huge stake in this," he said. The new technique is "not good news for the brand breeders and the seed companies".
Interest in SRI has mounted as droughts and erratic rainfall become more common, added urgency to efforts to create a steady stream of food from farmland to cooking pots.
Mali is West Africa's second-largest rice producer, but it still imports 18 percent of its rice annually, according to Abdoulaye Koureissi, national coordinator for a rice farmers platform.
Imports prevent local production from reaching its full potential, he said.
And longer droughts and other forms of unpredictable weather are destroying an ever-larger share of crops across this country, where nearly half the adult population suffered from stunting as children due to malnutrition, according to the United Nations.
Malian authorities are looking for ways to reduce imports and become self-sufficient in rice, said Kouyaté at GIZ.
For Faliry Boly, who heads a rice-growing association, the prospect of rice becoming a "white gold" for Mali should spur on authorities and farmers to adopt rice intensification.
The method could increase yields while also offering a more environmentally-friendly alternative, including by replacing chemical fertilisers with organic ones, he said.
What's more, rice intensification naturally lends itself to Mali's largely arid climate, he said.
Kouyaté said that rice intensification uses up to 40 percent less water than traditional rice growing methods.
A NEW PUSH
The European Union and other international funders have supported aid projects that encourage the practice in six of Mali's administrative regions so far.
This year, around 100 small-scale farmers were trained in the method through a GIZ-backed effort, Kouyaté said, and hundreds more have been trained in other areas of Mali.
Yet, rice intensification has remained largely experimental, with no governmental policy in place to bolster the adoption of the practice, Kouyaté said.
Another obstacle, experts say, is that many farmers using techniques hundreds of years old are often reluctant to try new ways of growing rice.
And the cost of a rice transplanting machine - a key part of the system - is between $2,100 and $2,900, more than many farmers can afford.
Koureissi, of the rice farmers' platform, said he has also seen farmers discouraged by the time investment required to learn the new method, teach it to their farmhands and then practice it.
"(Rice intensification) asks for a lot of time spent in planting rice, because the seedlings are planted very young, 8 to 15 days old, maximum," he said.
But Sibiri Konaté, who has been farming rice for nearly three decades in Baguineda, a small town in the country's south, said the new technique has changed his life.
Konaté went across the country to get training on rice intensification from another farmer two years ago.
On his four-hectare farm - part of a larger communal allocation - Konaté said he has seen his harvest jump from seven to 10 tonnes per hectare.
Even in bad years "I always manage" to get a harvest, he said. "But it is difficult to get other farmers here to commit."
(Reporting by Dieneba Deme, additional reporting by Sebastien Malo in New York ; editing by Jumana Farouky : (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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