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Q&A: Of Riots and Rice in Africa

Busani Bafana interviews DR. MARCO WOPEREIS of the Africa Rice Center

Dr. Marco Wopereis. Credit: AfricaRice

COTONOU, Benin, Jun 14 2013 (IPS) - Thanks to food riots in several African cities fuelled by high rice prices between 2007 and 2008, sub-Saharan Africa is growing and eating more rice after governments were forced into ambitious production programmes.

Rice is the third most important source of dietary energy in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Cotonou-based Africa Rice Center (AfricaRice), a research organisation working to contribute to poverty alleviation and food security in Africa and which is supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

An analysis by AfricaRice conducted in March 2013 shows that  average rice yields in sub-Saharan Africa jumped by about 30 percent from 2007 to 2012, and are increasing at a faster rate than the global average. The rate of paddy rice production also shot up from 3.2 percent per year before the rice crisis to 8.4 percent per year afterwards.

Describing this as encouraging news, AfricaRice’s director general, Dr. Papa Seck, said it was crucial to maintain the trend because rice consumption was increasing in sub-Saharan Africa at an annual rate of five percent.

“Following the food crisis, numerous investments were made by governments, international agencies, and donor countries (through bilateral cooperation) to revamp the rice sector in sub-Saharan Africa,” says AfricaRice Deputy Director General Dr. Marco Wopereis.

In an interview with IPS correspondent Busani Bafana, Dr. Wopereis said that while it was difficult to capture all investments made at regional and country levels, two regional projects have made a big difference.

He cited the two-year, five-million-dollar Emergency Initiative to Boost Rice Production in Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal funded by USAID, which helped some 56,420 farmers across the four countries through access to subsidised seed of improved varieties, fertiliser and improved crop-management methods. Farmers produced 51,279 tonnes more rice in 2010, with their production costs reduced over the two years of the project.

The second main project involved improving access to rice seed and building a rice data system for sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). The 4.5-million-dollar one-year project funded by the Japanese government produced a total of 106.9 tonnes of foundation seed from 29 varieties across 20 countries and 668.4  tonnes of certified seed.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: With the projected surge in rice consumption, are current agriculture policies in SSA  conducive to promoting rice production?

A: Remarkable progress has been achieved in rice production. Rice production is now growing at almost six percent per year since 2008. However, with the surge in rice consumption, rice production will have to double the current growth rate to satisfy increasing consumption.

Q: What is the annual production of rice in SSA compared to its imports?

A: The 2012 USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) data give 12 million tonnes for milled rice produced in sub-Saharan Africa and almost 12 million tonnes of imported rice. So, in 2012 annual rice production was close to 24 million tonnes with half of it imported.

Q: What is the future of rice as a staple in Africa?

A: The future of rice as a staple in Africa is very promising. AfricaRice is convinced that the future of rice farming is in Africa. The continent has a great untapped potential, which can be seen in its vast stretches of land and barely used water resources (e.g. Sub-Saharan Africa has 130 million ha of lowlands of which only 3.9 million ha are under cultivation).

The competitiveness of local rice production in SSA is now an established fact. Besides, yields are growing now at an impressive growth rate higher than those obtained under the green revolution in Asia. Various innovation systems coupled with rice technologies dissemination and enabling policy environment will continue to further enhance the realisation of the potential.

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