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
|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|
|Sadza quality||good quality and aromatic||not good consistency in sadza||good and aromatic|