This study offers evidence of the robustness of farmer rice varieties (Oryza glaberrima and O. sativa) in West Africa. Our experiments in five West African countries showed that farmer varieties were tolerant of sub-optimal conditions, but employed a range of strategies to cope with stress. Varieties belonging to the species Oryza glaberrima – solely the product of farmer agency – were the most successful in adapting to a range of adverse conditions. Some of the farmer selections from within the indica and japonica subspecies of O. sativa also performed well in a range of conditions, but other farmer selections from within these two subspecies were mainly limited to more specific niches. The results contradict the rather common belief that farmer varieties are only of local value. Farmer varieties should be considered by breeding programmes and used (alongside improved varieties) in dissemination projects for rural food security.