Mali: birthplace of African Rice

Mali is home to the ancient centre of scholarship Timbuktu, which was a hub for early astronomy and mathematics. The country was also home to the richest person ever to have lived, 14th century king Mansa Musa I, whose wealth at the time was nearly 6 times as much as the world’s current richest person (inflation adjusted). Along with these cultural and material riches, past and present, Mali is also the birthplace of Oryza glaberrima, or African rice, one of the two domesticated rice species in existence.

Agriculture through the ages

The inland delta of the Upper Niger River, located in Mali, is where African rice is believed to have been domesticated around 1500 BCE (~ 2500 years ago), independently of the Asian rice most of us know today. African rice is still grown in West Africa today, although it’s estimated to make up less than 20% of rice production in the region.

Preferred by many locals for taste and ease of growing, it’s a hardier plant than the Asian variety. African rice is more drought tolerant, more resistant to some common pests and diseases, and better able to compete with weeds. As a result, it is perhaps better suited to the uncertainties brought by climate change than the commercial Asian species, although it generally has a lower yield.

Some floating cultivars of African rice can tolerate flooding up to 2.5 m deep, and grow very differently than Asian rice, which requires shallow water or wet soil. Preserving the genetic information that gives African rice these beneficial traits is considered important for breeding rice cultivars in the future that are able to withstand the challenges of climate change whilst maintaining high yields.

Image credit: Wikipedia (bit.ly/2JF9NtW, bit.ly/2YrsOUI, bit.ly/2LL2vr7, bit.ly/2JFakMs)

Modern challenges to agriculture

Environmental challenges exacerbated by climate change, along with conflict in the central province Mopti and in the north, have troubled Mali in recent years, and agricultural production has suffered as a result of both.

Roughly 80% of the population are engaged in agriculture, and most are smallholder farmers relying on rain-fed agriculture. Just 3% of the rural land is irrigated or has access to the Niger river.

Irrigation of the future

Despite these challenges, Mali had been identified as the region with the greatest agricultural potential in the wider Sahel Region. Farmers in Mali are utilising Futurepump solar pumps to irrigate their crops, increasing yields and decreasing their reliance on unpredictable rainfall.

Our distributor in Mali is Emicom, look out for more from them on our social media in the coming month.