One day in October, I joined a group of 20 farmers visiting from the desert region of Gao some 600 km to the east. A day that remains very vivid in my memory!
Before heading out to the fields, the delegation was welcomed by local authorities and some of the village elders. One the elders, Mahamoudou Abdou, stepped forward to have a word:
“What you will hear and see today will be surprising. You might even resist some of these ideas. It is also true that our experience is still very new, but I would like to invite you to listen carefully and be open to ALL the advice you hear today.”
He went on:
“In fact, I believe that this new system of planting rice is very suitable for us, and I know it from my own experience. When I was a young man, my father accidently stumbled across some of the SRI practices. That year, at the time of transplanting, most of the plants in the rice nursery were destroyed by grazing animals, and my father was left with very few seedlings. If he restarted the nursery, it would delay the planting too long. So he decided to take his few seedlings and transplant them singly and further apart, in order to cover his entire field. That season he obtained a remarkably higher yield. Unfortunately, we didn’t think to do the same things again, but today we have the opportunity to improve our rice production and we should not let it go.“
“So what are the differences between the two systems?” one farmer asked.
The elder replied,
“In a nutshell, we are used to transplanting older seedlings — between 25 to 60 days old — in clumps of several plants and closely spaced. We keep the plots flooded throughout the entire season, and use chemical fertilizer, when we can get it, to push up the yields.”
“Yes, we do the same.”
The elder continued,
“With SRI, we now transplant seedlings when they are still very young – only 8-12 days old – we plant only one single seedling and we space them widely from each other. We irrigate only intermittently and let the plot dry out before we irrigate again. For fertilization, we use organic matter as a base and only use chemical fertilizer if it’s really necessary. “
“But this is unheard of! This is against what we have been doing all our lives! Everyone knows that for a high yield, we need a densely planted field, use chemical fertilizers, and irrigate generously.
Rice loves water!”
The elder smiled.
“Ok, maybe it is better to go to the fields now and you can see it for yourselves.”
And off we went in the Africare pick-up trucks to visit the first field.
First stop: Field of Mossa Ag Alhousseini, Bagadadji village.
Mossa welcomed the visiting farmers to his field:
“I am very happy with my SRI plot – look at how much more vigorous the plants are than in my control plot. After only a few weeks, plants have developed many tillers, the field is green and lush, looks much thicker and panicles have emerged 5 days earlier compared to the control plot.”
“But it wasn’t like this at first. After we finished transplanting, other farmers could hardly see any seedlings, they were so small. They laughed at us, called us fools, said we were wasting our time and would never harvest anything. But now, when those same farmers come by, they regret not having learned how to do it for themselves. With this method we use 90% fewer seeds, only 6-8 kg/ha per hectare, rather than the usual 40-50 kg/ha.”
One of the farmers interrupted “How is it that you planted so few small seedlings, but they produce so many more tillers and the field looks so lush and dense ? What is happening? “
Africare technician Hamidou Guindo had an answer:
“The secret is the plant’s ability to put out new tillers and new roots every 8 days during the first few weeks that it grows. It’s like clockwork.
Farmer Mossa continued:
“As I transplanted rice at young age and spaced it widely, the plants were able produce shoots and roots every 8 days and without being crowded. My plants each reached 40-60 shoots or more by the time it flowered. The old way –look at the control plot here!– I get only about 20 shoots on the 3-5 plants all planted together – the plants suffer from competition, and the old plants lost the ability to produce new shoots.”
When you give rice plants more space, they look different: the tillers are thicker, leaves are wider, the plants are taller, and they open up in a V-shape to get more sunlight. Just open your eyes, you can see it for yourselves.
Sometimes other farmers see the plot and ask me what new variety I am planting, and where they can get the seed. They like the way the field looks! I hope they are not disappointed when I tell them this is the same variety they already have and that their fields could look like mine.
The Gao farmers seemed impressed as they stepped into the field to examine the plants and count the tillers. We could hear them talking among themselves,
“This field looks good. It will indeed produce a great harvest.”
Second stop: Field of Bouba Boureima, Morikoira village
After hearing from Mossa, next stop was a village Morikoira where we visited the field of Bouba Boureima.
The visiting farmers had questions:
“Ok, we understand now: if we plant younger seedlings they can produce many tillers and we can save seed, but what we really do not understand is why you reduce irrigation water! Water is life, especially here next to the Sahara Desert, and rice loves water! We ideally keep the water 15-20 cm deep in our plots, even though water pumping is our highest cost. To let the plot dry out will reduce production!”
“I used to believe that too. But it’s really quite the opposite. Here, let me show you something. Let’s pull up two plants at random–you can choose which ones! – one from the SRI plot and one from the flooded plot. Done? Ok, now look at the roots. What do you see? The roots from the flooded field are small and shallow and have more a reddish-brown color. The roots from the SRI plant are whitish and twice as big as the other one. “
“We can see the difference. Why is that?”
Harouna Touré, another one of the Africare technicians, explains:
“Rice roots need to breathe, just like any other part of the plant. When it’s flooded, the rice plant needs to get oxygen from above ground to take down to the roots. This uses much energy, which the plant could use to grow and produce instead. What’s more, not all roots can get enough oxygen, so they can’t grow very well and many of them even die. With this poor root system, the plant can’t grow good leaves and won’t produce as many rice grains as they could. Although rice plants can tolerate flooding, it actually makes them struggle. They do not thrive.”
The visiting farmers nod.
“Well, that makes sense, but why did everyone have it wrong?
Not only here, but in other parts of the world.” Everyone looks at me.
“There can be several reasons. Probably the main reason why farmers plant rice in water –and this is true here in Mali– is for weed control: rice tolerates flooding, but weeds most often don’t.
Another reason is that it’s a way to use lowland areas that get flooded or waterlogged during the rainy season. As rice is the only crop that tolerates flooding, farmers can use these sites only for rice. So people begin to think that rice needs to be flooded. Also, in high rainfall areas, like in Southeast Asia, rice can resist heavy rainfall much better than other crops. And sometimes it can appear that rice is water loving when the fertilizers dissolved in water accumulate in the lowest spot of the field, as does eroded fertile silt from surface runoff. Thus all the nutrients flow down to where the water will remain standing longest. All these reasons lead people to think that rice loves water, but if we look at the roots, we see that is not true.”
“With SRI we irrigate differently: we let the plot dry out for a few days after each time we irrigate. And, yes, we use a third to a half less water, but we really do it for the plant: it allows for the roots to breathe and grow thickly and deep, and make full use of the soil they’re planted in.”
One of the Gao farmers now exclaims to the group:
“Ok, this difference between the two root system is striking. This new planting system is really interesting.
I understand it now and I can go home, I want to try it out myself”
Hamidou is quick to repond:
“Please, don’t hurry to go home – we still want to show you two more fields! – you won’t regret it!”
Third stop: field of Mahamane Houssa, Hara-Hara village
At this stop we focused on organic fertilization, or using compost as the main source of fertilizer.
Mahamane Houssa, president of the area’s farmer cooperative, began to speak:
“In earlier days, we didn’t use any fertilizers, we didn’t even know what fertilizers were. We would rotate our irrigation perimeter and leave the old fields to fallow. But now that we can get fertilizers, especially urea, we use it when available.
“How much do you use?”
“As much as I can afford, but usually that is still less than the recommended dose of 200 kg/ha.”
“Urea does help to increase yield, but if it is applied it at the wrong time, it doesn’t do much. And for the past few years I have to apply more fertilizer to get the same yield increase. I don’t know the reason, maybe the fertilizers are weaker? But it is also true that my soils are getting harder and dry out more quickly. I never apply organic matter to my rice soils, I don’t think anyone in the village has ever done that.”
“We don’t do it either in Gao!”
Two brothers from the nearby village of Adina-Koira added,
“For our SRI plot, we applied well-composted cow manure before preparing the soil, and during tillering we added a bit more when we saw that plants started to turn yellow. It also helps to use the mechanical cono-weeder after irrigation. Stirring up the mix of soil and manure releases nutrients and two days after weeding, the plants turn dark green again. This is how we can accurately manage the crop fertilization during the first half of its development. As the panicles develop, the plants look still green and healthy. We don’t really need to use chemical fertilizer anymore.”
Harouna added a comment regarding the panicles:
“Last year in Mahamdoun’s first SRI plot, we noticed that with these few simple changes, that we just showed you, the panicles get longer, there are more grains on each panicle, the seeds get heavier and fuller and the quality is better. Seeds don’t break as easily when milling.”
This makes sense – the GAO farmers agree and very pleased with the visit They are eager to go home and try it out. Indeed in the following year, we were able to work 35 farmers in 5 villages doing SRI. Gao farmers average SRI yields were 7.84 t/ha compared to conventional yields of 5.72 t/ha (Report).
Fourth Stop: Field of Elhadji Firhoun, Bourem village
Last stop of the day was Bourem village, where we visited the extensive fields of Elhadji Firhoun, one of the most successful and prosperous farmers in the area.
He had a few words for the visitors:
“I’ve been growing rice all my life, and I’ve used every improved technique that’s come along. So when I heard about this so-called SRI, I volunteered to do the trial as well…but it was really to show everyone that I could easily do better! Let me tell you, I used every technique and trick in my control plot to outcompete this SRI. But it didn’t work out as I expected. Much as I hate to admit it, even early in the season it was obvious that the SRI plot was doing much better. As we stand here in my rice field, I’ll say it openly: SRI is the best technique I have ever come across in my entire life.”
When the season ended, all 60 farmers had obtained higher yields (Report, in French). The following year, with support from USAID-funded project IICEM 35 farmers from Gao and 33 farmers in Mopti started testing SRI in their irrigation perimeters and 10 farmers in the Sikasso region adapted the practices to rainfed lowland systems. The results from all the regions were also highly successful (Report). IICEM worked also with 40 farmers in Timbuktu and Africare expanded their support to 270 farmers that year (Report). Syngenta Foundation introduced SRI to 60 farmers in the Office du Niger zone and in the Mopti region.
From there, SRI spread quickly to all the rice-growing regions of Mali. But farmers, agriculture technicians and the project managers from Mali didn’t stop there – they continued promoting SRI at the regional level prior to the SRI-WAAPP project, training technicians and farmers in Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo through the USAID-funded projects IICEM and E-ATP, and through the NGO Africare. The SRI-WAAPP project under CORAF picked up from there, and by 2016, when it ended, there were 50,000 farmers using SRI across West Africa. (Book)
From the beginning, this success was due to the farmers’ determination to try out a new system, to innovate and to share their knowledge with others. As farmer Mossa Ag Alhousseini from Bagadadji village said during the visit:
“I would like to see all 120 farmers who share this irrigation perimeter using SRI, that would allow us to cut the water pumping costs considerably. We five SRI farmers can teach the others.”
And eventually they did!
Moving forward, our goal is to share the knowledge of SRI with each of the 4.5 million rice farmers in West Africa, give them the opportunity to learn from the innovations and best practices developed by their peers, and to share and engage with scientists and technicians. All of us can help to transform rice production and make West Africa self-sufficient in rice.
Scaling up SRI will need many partners, approaches and programs working together. Let us know if you would like to be part of it.
Erika Styger, PhD is the Director of Climate-Resilient Farming Systems Program at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University. She was the technical lead to the regional coordination unit of the SRI-WAAPP project (2014-2016).