Humanity is today facing an acute rice crisis that, no doubt, is a serious threat to social peace keeping. This is not a surprise to me at all, because when I consider the knowledge capital accumulated by man, it is hard and even impossible not to foresee such phenomena. Africa Rice Center (WARDA) has for at least 02 years predicted a rice crisis in Africa as of 2008. The last whistle blowing dates back from the Council of Ministers of Member States held in Abuja in September 2007. During that important meeting, WARDA Director General had made a presentation entitled “Rice crisis in Africa, myth or reality”? It clearly emphasized that our continent was heading to real supply difficulties. In fact Africa accounts for 10 to 13 per cent of world population but consumes 32 per cent of world imports with a consumption growth rate of about 4.5 per cent per annum. Coupled with this are world stocks, which are at their lowest level since 25 years, with at least 2 months reserve including the half that is based in China. It must also be emphasized that econometric models had also estimated that 2008 prices would at least be double of 2002 prices. Finally supply is steadily shrinking. For example, a leading producer like China lost 4 million hectares over 10 years and could look for 10 per cent of its requirements on the international markets, that is, 35 per cent of the quantities that are traded. This is in fact the equivalent of current Africa share.
Many initiatives have been taken by most African Governments. But we are bound to note and emphasize that just like in other parts of the world, nothing could stop the phenomenon.
The rice crisis is structural; it is likely to be long and hard, because Asia is less and less capable of feeding the world. An analysis of the 10 last years shows that world consumption is increasing on average by 1 per cent per annum and productivity by 0.5 per cent. The crisis therefore might be the cumulated effect of the gaps recorded each year.
I am convinced that Africa holds the future for rice farming. Because this continent, unlike Asia, has a great untapped potential, which is benchmarked by its large land distribution and its barely used water resources (Zambia, DRC, Sierra Leone, Mali, Senegal, etc.). For illustration, in sub-Saharan Africa, there are 130 million hectares of lowlands including the 3.9 million only under cultivation. Meanwhile in Asia, the challenge is not about increasing rice areas but rather about maintaining them. The competitiveness of local rice production in sub-Saharan Africa is now a fact. This can be demonstrated by comparing yields achieved in Thailand and Vietnam with yields recorded in Senegal, Mali and Niger. Stereotypes regarding our cost and quality competitiveness are rather wishful thinking and beside the points.
Africa needs to turn things around by overriding the emergency management logic to favor a genuine rationalization of its thought on the future and by taking concrete recovery steps. Viewed in this way, this crisis is rather an opportunity to think out of the box and act differently to feed ourselves on an indigenous and sustainable basis. Only one issue is therefore at stake: what are the problems and what should be done?
On the short term, the measures taken by a number of African Governments regarding tax reduction and a number of mechanisms targeting fairness on the markets are consistent. They must however be more pro-poor focused. They must also initiate thinking immediately on medium and long term actions, because the equations will come up more strongly in terms of resource availability than resource accessibility.
Along these lines the following points can be made:
1. Significantly increase the share of high yielding irrigated rice farming in production. Today irrigated areas in Africa accounts for less than 10 per cent compared to more than 50 per cent in Asia. Irrigated rice farming helps to both achieve very high yields (3 to 4 times higher than rainfed) and to conduct double cropping.
2. Promote the use of varieties like NERICA (a variety developed by WARDA through a crossing between the African rice and the Asian rice). NERICA helps to markedly increase yields in a number of ecosystems, to achieve a shorter cycle (less than 50 days compared to traditional varieties) and a protein value which is higher by 25 per cent compared to imported rice. Today there are 18 NERICA varieties developed for upland and 60 for lowland, which have been released in 20 African countries. Streamlining and fast tracking the procedures for releasing these varieties through the use of the participatory methods proposed by WARDA should be approved by all African countries to reduce the adoption process by several numbers of years.
3. Increase access to improved seed: Seed availability is one of the major constraints of a successful use of improved varieties like NERICA. To overcome such a problem the following measures, among others, are necessary: (i) Enact standard laws for seeds and define efficient seed control and certification mechanisms, and ensure their implementation. (ii) Establish a seed legislation system to support private sector involvement in seed supply and trade. (iii) Support national agricultural research systems (NARS) in breeder’s seed and foundation seed production.
4. Improve cropping practices: WARDA and its partners have highlighted the possibility of increasing yields in farmer operational condition through an integrated management of the rice season by proposing alternatives ranging from land preparation to harvest. Yield gains from one to two tonnes per hectare have been made in irrigated systems and lowlands, without any significant increase in production costs; the improvements specifically focus on fertility management and weed control.
5. Reduce harvest and post-harvest losses: Harvest and post-harvest losses (in quantity and quality) accounts for 15 to 50 per cent of the market value of production. Making performing equipment available to operators and training them is therefore the only way to reduce losses and to improve quality together with links with the various operators in the rice value chain.
6. Support research and extension systems and their links: Establishing a rice operator platform, a national rice program support fund and adequately funding rice research and extensions systems appear to me as the major thrusts to be considered.
7. Mass Support to rice sector operators: There is a deregulation in international trade. Until a recent year, the 11 000 North American rice farmers received subsidies valued at US$ 1.4 billion per year. Meanwhile the 7 million African rice farmers keep on battling it out with a liberalized market without any subsidy and with limited access to credit, input and market information.
It is in fact obvious that rural African operators like all their counterparts around the world need a substantial support.
8. Improve our infrastructure to reduce the high cost of inputs: Prices of fertilizer in Africa are generally 2 to 6 times higher than prices in Asia, Europe and North America which are specifically tied to high transportation charges. We therefore have objective limitations for a smart intensification to boost African rice productivity.
Africa must understand that it must ensure a rice supply that is sufficient in quantity, satisfactory in quality, rewarding for producers and bearable by the budget of the poorest consumers. It is at this cost and this cost alone that it can escape “hostage taking” by world prices. There is no secret; a competitive and sustainable agriculture is achieved by a combination of 03 smart factors: Performing technologies, basic infrastructure and an enabling environment. Yes it is possible to turn the trends around but on the medium term.
Dr. Papa A. Seck
Agricultural Policy and Strategies Specialist
Africa Rice Center (WARDA)