From enjoying the status of a widely cultivated staple food to becoming a marginalized peasant crop, African rice is now undergoing a revival in Zimbabwe, thanks to research conducted by local scientists and a renewed interest in traditional foods by Zimbabwean consumers.

The History of African rice

African rice (Oryza glaberrima), which shares an ancestor with the more common Asian rice (Oryza sativa), is thought to have originated in what is now Mali some 2000-3000 years ago. Having spread across the continent, historical accounts show that African rice has been a component of Zimbabwean cropping systems since ancient times. Research suggests that during the early 19th century, rice became the staple food of the Mashona having great social and cultural value not only as part of their cropping system but also playing a pivotal role in trade between farmers. The crop has a curved niche within seasonally waterlogged fields and gardens and has been prominent across much of the north east to the south east of the country where African rice still makes an important contribution to household food security and income generation.

Production declined during the colonial land grab when Africans were relocated to cramped, marginal areas which were inadequate for a wide range of crops. Here African farmers were challenged by poor rainfall, lack of irrigation and legislation banning wetland cultivation. In addition, colonial researchers ignored traditional crops as they were perceived to be inferior.

African rice research

Research on African rice began in Zimbabwe in the 1940s starting with local germplasm collections, their evaluations in agronomic and fertility trials and subsequent characterization. The most popular varieties are presented in Table 1. During the same period exotic rice was introduced to this country by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). This Asian rice was compared with our own varieties and African rice varieties became sidelined because of their lower response to improved management.

Despite this, African rice remained very popular amongst communal farming communities. There are several advantages that the farmers enjoyed. Besides being part of their own historical socio-economic and cultural heritage, African rice is hardy and better able to resist pest and disease attack as well as heat, drought and low soil fertility and iron toxicity. Because of the plants broad leaves, weeds are quickly out-shaded.

The grain quality is good in terms of milling, nutritional value and cooking quality. The Dembaremba and Mutirigu varieties are highly glutinous and aromatic. African rice is also easy to dehull by hand making it simple for communal farmers to process.

Table 1: Characteristics of indigenous rice varieties

Dembaremba Munyai Mutirigu Kapungare Mungore
Appearance of seed Long  and brown-with longitudinal grooves. It tapers to a tail-like end. Does not break easily Brown, narrow and long Light or white, long and stout Light brown Brown, long and stout
Bird damage No, because the grain has a sharp point. Yes Yes Yes
Size The plant is tall and has many branches. When the rice is ripe the ear droops but the grains are firmly attached to the ear Short leaves: grain is shed easily Short leaves: grain is shed easily Short leaves: grain is shed easily Tall:  seed does not fall off easily from the plant
Easily dehulled? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Yield high medium medium medium medium
Maturing late early early early early
Sadza quality good quality and aromatic not good consistency in  sadza good and aromatic

Value addition

Value addition of African rice in line with the Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio Economic Transformation (Zim-Asset), can go a long way in producing products such as sweet meats, porridge, pudding, nectar, cake, bread and pancakes made using African rice. Other products include rice flakes produced when paddy (unmilled rice) is soaked in water for three days followed by boiling then heating and pounding to remove the husks. It can then be popped or eaten as a breakfast cereal after heating the rice in sealed containers for an hour at 88°C. Glutinous rice (Dembaremba and Mutirigu) can be used to make sweet meats. Broken rice grain is used for confectionery and rice powder is used in cosmetic production. Beer wines and spirits are made from rice fermented with yeast. Rice bran, husks and straw can be used as livestock feed.

Marketing

In the past barter trading of rice occurred between farmers, and from village level right up to Mbare musika. Today there is a high demand for African rice in Zimbabwe and in the increasing number traditional food restaurants in Harare and elsewhere, African rice with peanut butter (mafake) is on most menus. These food outlets are patronized by both the affluent, foreigners and ordinary people with a passion for traditional foods. It is also now found in most supermarkets albeit at a price (between $5 and $6 per kg). A major challenge now is the short supply of the African rice to meet the current and future demand.

Concerted efforts and strategies must be put in place to encourage commercial production of African rice to feed the growing market. The marginalization of African rice from mainstream research and development caused loss of germplasm and mix-ups of the rice land races. As part of the initial intervention measures germplasm collection, characterization, purification and conservation of the purified material must be carried out. Pure lines should then be selected and evaluated seed of good performing landraces produced as certified seed for the market. A national back up of the selected varieties should be conserved at the national gene bank for posterity. It remains crucial to document and preserve the cultural diversity of indigenous communities through the utilization of indigenous rice as this contributes significantly to all efforts done for cultural identity preservation.

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Francis Mukoyi

Francis Mukoyi is a plant breeder with the Department of Research and Specialist Services currently attached to the Cotton Research Institute, Kadoma. He has over ten years experience, specializing in the co-ordination, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of projects on the development, evaluation, release and seed multiplication of crop varieties. He has also been involved with training communal farmers on community-based seed systems. Francis has worked with a number of self-pollinating crops and has enjoyed exploring the rich but unfamiliar territory of indigenous rice varieties. He has been instrumental in the release and registration of three upland rice varieties to Zimbabwean farmers.