Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What do you want from your rice, madam?

What makes a good rice eating experience? What makes a consumer choose any particular variety over another? It seems to have something to do with where you live and what you have access to. AfricaRice researchers and students have been finding out just how diverse African taste for rice really is.

Yield is only one characteristic of a crop variety. For farmers and consumers it is not necessarily the most important one. Since the mid-1990s, participatory varietal selection (PVS) trials have shown time and again that even when yield is the most important criterion in varietal selection, other factors are also taken into consideration by rice farmers.

With emphasis shifting toward demand-driven research encompassing the whole value chain, it is perhaps time to focus breeding on consumer demands as well as those of farmers.

“Products are consumed for the characteristics they possess,” says Aliou Diagne, AfricaRice program leader for policy, innovation systems and impact assessment. “Variety choice depends on the attributes of the variety.”

AfricaRice researchers have been conducting sensory (consumer acceptance) tests of raw-milled and cooked rice in several West African countries to determine which attributes are preferred by consumers. AfricaRice research assistant Mamadou Fofana and colleagues visited four rice-consuming locations in Benin, testing three NERICA, two imported and two local varieties with panels of 125 consumers.

The locations differed in the availability of rice types: the port city and commercial capital, Cotonou, has primarily imported rice on its markets; another location had both imported and local varieties; while the other two locations had imported, local and NERICA varieties available.

“Consumers in all locations showed acceptance of the imported rices and of NERICA 1 in relation to their appearance as milled rice,” says Fofana. “However, no variety/brand received high scores of acceptance across all locations in terms of the taste of cooked rice.” More precisely, only three varieties reached a level of ‘liked’ in the sensory test of cooked rice — the two imported brands and NERICA 4 — and that only in Cotonou.

Overall, the results displayed vast disparities among locations and individuals in terms of varietal acceptability once cooked, as even the least acceptable variety found 21 supporters (out of the total of 500 testers) who either “liked it” or “liked it very much”!

Saneliso Mhlanga worked from McGill University (Canada) on data collected in Benin by Soul-Kifouly Midingoyi of the Institut national de recherches agricoles du Bénin (INRAB), who surveyed 546 households in both rural and urban areas of the four geographical regions of the country — northeast, northwest, center and south. “Across the country, consumers preferred and were willing to pay a premium for short grains, desired aroma, white kernels, clean and unbroken rice,” says Mhlanga. “The Beninese in general also prefer parboiled rice over milled white rice.” Moreover, consumers clearly linked country of origin with expected quality, always favoring imported brands over local varieties.

In Nigeria, Olorunfemi Ogundele of the Nigeria Institute for Social and Economic Research (NISER) found that the consumption and utilization of various types of local rice are directly influenced by the diverse traditional food consumption patterns in the country. For example, some consumers prefer a certain type of local rice for a particular dish, most likely because of its taste, color and stickiness after cooking.

The physical and chemical characteristics of rice varieties are used by consumers to identify and recognize the different types of rice in the market. Almost half of the respondents in Ekiti State indicated the absence of foreign matter as their first selection criterion, while those who ate local rice preferred its taste over that of imported brands. This implies that the most important discriminating factor between imported and local rice is the absence of foreign matter.

Similar observations were made in Niger State, where some people considered taste as the most important criterion for selection, while others considered ease of cooking and whiteness as the most important criteria — these two groups with different preference criteria consumed different varieties.

“Thus, absence of foreign matter and degree of whiteness seem to be the most important physical characteristics for Nigerian consumers,” says Diagne, “while ease of cooking and taste are the most important cooking and sensory properties.”

Similar work has been conducted, or is ongoing, in Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Togo and Uganda.

“A major lesson from this work is that we need to develop local varieties that are at least of equal quality with the imported brands,” says AfricaRice crop ecophysiologist Koichi Futakuchi. “Given that none of the varieties, including imported rice, tested by Fofana and his team gained any level of broad acceptability across the whole country in the sensory tests of cooked rice, it should be possible to develop varieties and produce rice locally that is more acceptable than the imported brands. For milled rice, imported rice is apparently an excellent example and a target for improvements in postharvest practices and varietal quality characteristics.”

“The people of the African continent are very diverse,” says grain-quality specialist John Manful, “so it is not surprising that consumer preferences for rice are also diverse, both across and within countries.” This is in stark contrast to a country like Japan, where consumer preferences are very narrow, and consequently all rice work is geared to providing for those preferences.

“This African diversity is a good thing!” Manful declares. “It means that almost every variety with good physical and milling properties that is developed is likely to find acceptance somewhere on the continent.

” Within the framework of the AfricaRice–Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) project ‘Enhancing food security in Africa through the improvement of rice postharvest handling, marketing and the development of new rice-based products’, and the new Rice Processing and Value Addition Task Force, Manful and others are seeking to develop a catalog of consumer preferences across the continent and within countries.

“This will entail knowing what the main rice-based dishes in each place actually are, what rice attributes those dishes require and which varieties have those attributes,” explains Manful. “Then, we should be able to match varieties to countries and populations.”