Mamady Douno slips off his flip-flops and wades through his rice field, stooping to check the spindly plants. He treads with care -- after all, these delicate green shoots have changed his life.
The rice in this field near Maferenya, 30 miles outside the Guinean capital of Conakry, is called NERICA, or New Rice for Africa, and it is behind a mini-revolution in this verdant West African nation.
Branded a "miracle rice" by some, NERICA is touted by the United Nations and other international sponsors as promising to end hunger for thousands of West Africa's 20 million rice growers.
Consider the various ways people here describe it. In the forest uplands, they call it "Mother can no longer refuse her children." Elsewhere, its name means, "I will no longer have to sell my best goat."
"Since I started to grow this rice, I no longer buy rice on the market. With NERICA, I can feed my family, pay my kids' school fees, and be sure of having food all year," said Douno, the father of 10 children.
NERICA was created by crossbreeding African and Asian varieties of rice. Researchers at the West African Rice Development Association, based in Bouake, Ivory Coast, used advanced biotechnology techniques to combine the high yields of Asian varieties with the robustness of African strains.
The project, which started in the early 1990s, is backed by the U.N. Development Program and the Japanese government, among others.
"There is no genetic modification," said Gunther Hahne, director of research at the rice development association.
Hahne says this is probably why NERICA has not set off a debate of the kind surrounding "golden rice," a strain genetically engineered to produce vitamin A to combat malnutrition and blindness. Critics call it Frankenfood.
NERICA varieties yield up to 50 percent more at harvest, without fertilizers, and are more resistant to disease and pests. They ripen in three months versus four or five for other varieties.
That means NERICA can be harvested in August and September, when people tend to run out of reserves and often go hungry as they wait to harvest a new crop in November and December.
And NERICA benefits the land, promoters insist. Slash-and-burn farming is common here, as the more productive Asian rice varieties cannot compete with weeds, forcing farmers to move on after a crop or two. NERICA smothers weeds.
"This chases hunger away, and when there is hunger, you are not free," said Douno, standing under a light drizzle in his field.
Previous attempts to crossbreed African and Asian rice had resulted in sterile plants, but researchers circumvented this problem with a technique called embryo rescue, which is like in vitro fertilization.
Different varieties of NERICA have been created to suit different soils and different climates. "NERICA, for us, is not a product. It's a technological process, which allows us to do what we want," Hahne said.
The U.N. agency reckons that NERICA could save western and central Africa $100 million annually in rice imports over the next three to five years.
Farmers played a key role in three years of trials, testing different varieties of the rice and selecting the ones best suited to their land. Now, the rice is being cultivated in about 17 African countries.
Guinea is one of the front-line countries in the NERICA project; in 2000, about 20,000 farmers cultivated the seeds.
But NERICA's success has raised some problems.
Near Kindia, a busy market town 90 miles north of Conakry, researchers at the Kim Il Sung Center for Research into Agronomic Science test the purity of seeds produced by local farmers in a rundown, ill-equipped laboratory.
Director Banou Keita said there is a danger that farmers, who have been chosen to grow seeds and sell them, might mix them with older varieties, distilling the purity of the crop.
"It is essential to train and monitor the farmers. We are using the best people, but it is not enough," he said.
Back in Maferenya, Mamady Douno has big ideas. He would like to buy a tractor, so that he could harvest up to 120 acres.
"Now there are some of my relatives who are even bigger than me," he said, proudly sticking out his rotund stomach.