Two high-yielding rice varieties released to the government of Burundi in March can help hundreds of thousands of farmers overcome a major disease in the country’s irrigated rice areas. Developed at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), IR87546-84-3-3-2 (photo above) and IR13A256, have yields of 7.5 and 6.7 t/ha, respectively, and possess resistance to rice blast, a fungal disease that can wipe out an entire crop.

“These varieties are set to improve rice production in our country where subsistence agriculture is still happening and where rice is slowly becoming a cash crop,” says Dr. Joseph Bigirimana, IRRI-East and Southern Africa (IRRI-ESA) regional coordinator. “These will help uplift lives of smallholder farmers in Burundi, more than 60% of whom are women farmers, who work to put daily food in the table for their families to eat.”

This development is a win for rice scientists and researchers in their mission to ensure food security in the country, according to Bigirimana.

“The primary beneficiaries of these varieties are at least 150,000 smallholder farmers living in the lowland of Imbo region along Ruzizi and along Lake Tanganyika,” adds Alexis Ndayiragije, lead of IRRI’s Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA) breeding team. “Breeders have to shorten the breeding cycle and deliver new resistant varieties within a short periode due to disease resistance breakdown through ESA RGA platform.”

Burundi is a small country and is considered as one of the poorest in the world. Most of the country’s poor are small-scale farmers. Other challenges in agricultural production in the country include sheath rot and the rice yellow mottle virus.

“It is considered a success whenever a new rice variety is released to our government,” says Bigirimana. “However, we still have a long way to go as we are actively assisting Burundi’s Ministry of Agriculture to multiply and distribute the seeds of these new varieties so that farmers can begin planting these seeds.”

A rice line introduced in Burundi goes through several stages of evaluation beginning with observation, preliminary and advanced yield trials where the line is tested in multi-environmental settings, and a participatory variety selection or PVS. During the PVS, all the stakeholders in the rice value chain—seed producers, rice growers, millers, vendors and consumers—are involved in the selection of good lines. The government of Burundi and IRRI’s collaborative work on rice began in 2008. In 2011, IRRI released two rice varieties, locally known as Vuninzara and Gwizumwimbu, for irrigated lowland areas. Within two years, 90% of the rice-growing areas in irrigated lowlands were planted with these varieties and Vuninzara became a very popular variety. Unfortunately, in 2014, the variety became susceptible to rice blast causing significant decrease in yields. Another variety, Mugwiza, was released at the end of 2016 to replace Vuninzara.

Since 2011, IRRI has released a total of 15 varieties in other ESA countries: four in Mozambique, three in Uganda, two in Tanzania, one in Kenya, and five in Burundi including the two newly released varieties.