We were on our way to the Sahel Center, an outpost of AfricaRice, the Pan-African research organization that began operations in 1971 to help meet the rising consumption of rice in West Africa, with an emphasis on increasing self-sufficiency. It now has 28 member countries across the continent, including Madagascar, who participate in research exchanges and whose farmers are trained by AfricaRice’s experts. Baboucarr Manneh, an irrigated-rice breeder and the regional representative of the center, oversees activities in seven countries in the Sahel region: Guinea-Bissau, Gambia, Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. Born in Gambia, he grew up eating both local and imported rice, and remembers a Mandingo song that warned children against eating imported iterations of the grain, lest they encounter weevils. My visit was right before the planting season, which usually starts in May or June, leading to harvests in October or November. Manneh’s technicians were busy packing up seeds of new rice varieties to send to member countries, particularly Mali, where the wet season would soon be underway.
In the cooler confines of his office, Manneh explained to me how rice gets to our plates: Rice is a grass, and the part that we consume grows at the end of the blade, or stalk. As it matures, the stalks begin to droop and turn from green to yellow. The stalks are then cut and sent through a thresher to separate the grain from what is now essentially hay. The grains are dried out, then removed from their hulls. In the old days in Senegal, this was done by hand with a mortar and pestle, but now it is more commonly done with a machine. At this point, the rice is edible but still bears its bran, the outer coating that is the distinction between brown and white rice. A milling machine then removes the bran, and a polishing machine smooths the now-white rice.
There are two different types of domesticated rice species in the world, Manneh told me: Oryza sativa, or Asian rice, and Oryza glaberimma, African rice. Oryza sativa is by far the more popular, and more famous, of the two; variations of it — from long-grain basmati to short-grain arborio — have been shipped, cultivated, diversified and cooked around the world for centuries. Asian rice was introduced to the African continent by the Portuguese in the 16th century, but African rice had been cultivated long before: likely 3,000 years ago in the Inner Niger Delta area of northern Mali. It never went extinct, but by the early 1900s, farmers were more likely to opt for higher-yield Asian varieties. Manneh attributes the popularity of Asian rice over African rice, from a cultivator perspective, to the centuries of money, experimentation and attention invested into its development. “It’s like sports,” he said. “You put a lot of money into sports, you find you get a lot of talents that are coming.” The aim of his lab, and others like it, is to leap over the lost centuries of African rice development via breeding, resulting in varieties that local farmers would want to plant and local consumers would want to buy.