End the reliance on imports and become self-sufficient in rice! This is the resounding statement increasingly being made by African governments in response to the huge challenge of food insecurity. In Africa, rice is the most rapidly growing food source and about 30Mt will be needed by 2035. Africa’s dependence on rice imports became marked during a global surge in agricultural commodity prices in 2007‒2008. This surge affected the economies of African countries and even fuelled widespread protests in some in response to high rice prices.
The African countries have realised since the crisis of 2007‒2008 that they should exploit the potential of the rice sector to enhance food security. Rice is the fastest-growing food staple in Africa and since the late 1970s, it has been the second most important source of calories after maize.
Average annual per capita rice consumption in Africa increased at a faster rate ‒ estimated at 4.0% ‒ than the average annual rice production rate, estimated at 3.3%. Production, however, still falls short of demand and as a result, Africa currently imports nearly 37.0% of the rice it consumes. This corresponds to about 32% of the world’s rice trade. When translated into imports, it was estimated at about 10Mt in 2009, worth more than $5 million, which could have been invested in developing the domestic rice sector. It is, however, hard to envisage food security through increasing rice production in Africa if possible measures are not followed and priority actions implemented by governments.
Steps and challenges in increasing Africa’s rice production
African governments are pinning their hopes on measures and priority actions that they can take to boost rice sector development. These include, among others, a wide range of research and development activities across the rice value chain. AfricaRice and partner institutions within the National Agricultural Research Systems posited that rice productivity-enhancing research for development activities presented in its 10-year (2011–2020) strategic plan would increase local production of better-quality rice, lower prices on the market, and lift some 11 million people out of poverty ‒ on the basis of a $1.25 poverty line ‒ by the end of 2020. The beneficiaries would comprise members of rice farming households and rice consumers across sub-Saharan Africa.
AfricaRice estimates that in the absence of the implementation of its proposed strategic plan, production of milled rice, which has a more direct effect on food security than paddy rice, could be estimated at 21Mt in 2020. On the other hand, with the full implementation of its strategy, milled rice production will increase from about 12Mt in 2010 to about 30Mt in 2020. The strategy of AfricaRice and its partners will, therefore, result in a 9Mt increase in milled rice production, corresponding to a 44% loss in the absence of its strategy. Aggregated rice consumption is projected to rise from about 20Mt in 2010 to 35.0Mt by 2020. In the scenario where AfricaRice’s strategy is not implemented, sub-Saharan Africa would thus import roughly 14Mt of milled rice in 2020 to fill the gap between projected consumption and production. With the implementation of AfricaRice’s strategy, imports will only be about 4.6Mt in 2020.
AfricaRice’s research and development strategy will reduce milled rice imports by 67%, which should lead to an increase in the estimated continental rice self-sufficiency ratio from the current level of 60% to at least 87% in 2020. This is certainly a strong message to African governments regarding the importance of the measures and priority actions proposed by AfricaRice in its Strategy, in contributing to boosting the rice sector, enhancing food security and boosting savings in their foreign exchanges with African countries.
Public statements made on rice self-sufficiency by African governments as part of their ambitious agricultural investment programs have also sparked off strong reactions from foreign companies, trading giants and the local private sector. Some of these companies have unveiled plans to make huge investments in the rice sector. In some countries, government authorities have already signed, while others are hoping to sign agreements with these categories of stakeholders, with the objective of raising rice production, expanding milling capacity and coordinating the marketing of local production. They are, however, all relying on the outputs that will be delivered through research and development activities such as those defined by AfricaRice.
Nevertheless, African governments should take on board lessons learned from experiences of previous years, when most of the countries that were rice self-sufficient ‒ some of them even rice exporters ‒ were transformed to rice self-insufficient countries and the biggest importers of rice. In effect, the achievement of self¬-sufficiency in early years, before 1989, was attributed to interventions such as restrictions on licensing of imports, high tariff rates and government support for the development of local rice production.
Why does Africa import so much rice?
Major policy shifts between 1980 and 2000, through structural adjustments policies promoted mainly by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, led to rice trade liberalization and reduction of import tariffs by the countries. These in turn encouraged massive rice imports into Africa, thus hindering the development of local rice production. As a result, rice self-sufficiency ratios began to drop while imports grew. After 2000, however, some countries reverted back to increase protection of their local rice sectors, but the lack of harmonization of tariff policies across countries did not allow a reduction in import volume.
These experiences therefore position the rice sector as an important and robust learning model for African governments as regards how to respond to the challenges of food security. It presents an opportunity for African governments to become more proactive in adopting adequate measures and actions that could contribute to boosting the sector’s development.
Sustaining Africa’s increasing rice production
It is obvious that promising achievements in the Africa’s rice sector, including improvements in local rice productivity and competitiveness, can only be sustained over time if appropriate enabling policies are established and promoted by governments. These policies include mainly those that would create incentives for producers, control large imports and secure adequate investments in the rice value chain.
The most debated of these policy instruments is the Common External Tariff (CET). Increasing the level of the CET from its current 10.0% level to a flexible level of around 35.0% would secure investments, provide incentives for rice production and control massive rice imports. This instrument will certainly be rendered more powerful if it is consistent with the policies of sub-regional authorities that strive to promote food sovereignty and also if it follows the trends of the international and domestic regional markets. Additional policy measures that need to be implemented through the rice value chain include:
• The gradual upgrade of the rice value chain along the lines of quality enhancement, certification, and branding and labelling;
• The adoption of supply-shifting strategies, including investments in research extension and storage infrastructure; and
• Implementation of demand-lifting actions based on the development of marketing strategies.
Moreover, regional integration and cooperation within the African continent are important in order to more effectively and efficiently address some of the cross-country challenges, including tariffs and fertilizer subsidy, development and implementation of efficient market regulation policies such as regional rice storage, and bulk purchase, considered as a policy instrument to stabilize rice price variability and ensure sustainable food availability and affordability.
The role of African governments in enhancing rice production
What, then, makes African governments true partners in the rice business? True partnership with African governments is an essential ingredient in boosting the rice sector. Partnership from a pessimist’s point of view signifies subjection and execution of orders. This characteristic beleaguers an attention that needs to be fully conceptualized and understood by African governments. African governments’ partnership in the rice business should, in general, be proactive, demonstrate great respect, and be geared towards a win-win solution, especially as regards creating the enabling environment for boosting rice production. At the same time it should portray the notion of trust and confidence that is required in a partnership relationship. African governments should enable its partners to think and work within a defined system and based on a set of values, defined for the common good of the population by African governments.
Another important characteristic of the partnership with African governments would be the willingness to diligently respect the conditions of the partnership, especially with regard to policies that would enable the environment for rice production. This should involve speaking the voice of the majority of the population that depends on the rice sector for their livelihoods; fair justice; and uplifting a nation, guided by enabling policies, which are established based on its own moral values. It should be noted, however, that this nature of partnership is complex and could be full of power and pain. It can shutter one’s mind and aura to the extent of one’s downfall.
An unbeatable combination in the race to boost the African rice sector would be African governments that are truthful about how they establish and promote their enabling rice policies and partners who are very receptive to them. African governments need to pay constant attention to their various categories of partners in the rice business and develop a vision to achieve an end to political bickering on policy issues, which are already causing much harm to their population. Likewise, government’s authority must be recognized by partners to boost the rice sector. One thing is for sure, African governments need their partners and these partners need the governments. It is a symbiotic process that has been tested and proven to work. African governments must, therefore, step forward as true partners in the rice business to establish and facilitate the implementation of policies, which would create the enabling environment for rice production to contribute to enhancing food security.
Former President of Tanzania and Global Ambassador for Immunisation.
Executive Director, International Trade Centre