FAO launches emergency rice programme in West Africa
Eleven countries take immediate steps to revive local production
15 July 2008, Rome – When one imagines an African landscape, wherever it may be, images of rice paddies are not normally the typical scenery one conjures up. But understanding the role of rice in the recent displays of public unrest in some of the continent’s poorest countries is key to developing a sustainable, long-term solution to the crisis of high food prices on a global scale.
“FAO’s Initiative on soaring food prices initially concentrated on those countries where people were demonstrating over the cost of not just any food, but the price of rice,” said Robert Guei, Agricultural Officer with the FAO’s Seed and Plant Genetic Resources Service.
“When I was growing up in Côte d’Ivoire, I ate rice every day. It is what many people eat every day, it is the staple food across the region,” he said.
So when the price of rice by March about doubled in some West African countries over a year, people were struggling to buy the food they needed to eat, even if in theory there was no shortage.
According to FAO data, in the 22 member countries of the Africa Rice Center (WARDA), demand for rice was calculated at about 16 million tonnes in 2006. Of that, domestic production provided some 11 million tonnes. About 6 million tonnes were imported to make up the difference at the then lower price of US$1.2 billion per year. Domestic production in West Africa, though increasing, is continuously outstripped by growth in rice consumption in the region.
Quick, easy and cheap, until now
Especially in the cities, centres of burgeoning populations also arriving from the countryside, working people have a particular penchant for rice in that it frees them from the daily grind of preparing more labour-intensive meals. Growth in rice consumption is in part a matter of convenience.
“With tubers such as cassava, or plantains, there is a problem of storage. A woman has to go to the market every day to get the food fresh, or it goes off. Then she has to pound it, boil it, and go through a whole process that can take hours just to get a proper meal,” Mr Guei explained.
Rice, he said, is bought in a bag that can keep for months on the shelf, and in just a half hour or so, it is ready to eat. So it allows women to go to school, take care of children, or have an economic activity that can improve her and her family’s standard of living as well.
But such progress is threatened by the region’s reliance on imported rice, and thus, the vulnerability to international price swings that have left rice prices locked out of reach for many people this year. Prices of rice have fallen somewhat as exporting countries loosen export controls, but it is generally accepted that the high prices are here to stay for many years.
An imposed decline
“From 1970 until 1978, when I was a kid, there was a state company in Côte d’Ivoire that ensured farmers received certified seed for each planting. The company would give you a loan to buy the seed, they provided extension services to train people in the best techniques in raising their crops, and when it was harvest time, they provided support and bought the whole crop, which also paid back the loan,” Mr Guei recalled.
The Government would also pay to construct proper storage facilities, and invested huge sums in building and maintaining irrigation systems, he added. African countries saw it as a fundamental food security matter and secured national food supplies for their people.
In the 1980s, Mr Guei said, these countries were advised by international institutions to phase out government involvement in the agricultural sector. The private sector, it was theorized, would steadily step in and the free market would take over. But that did not happen.
“In agriculture, some support is needed, however. Agriculture in most developed countries is heavily subsidized, and for certain aspects this is necessary,” said Mr Guei.
According to senior FAO Economist Concha Calpe, when those subsidized products are exported, the small-scale producers cannot possibly compete. Their products are no longer competing on an equal footing.
“In addition, as part of the WTO negotiations, developing countries including those in Africa agreed to lower their tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade and agreed to allow imported goods to enter local markets,” Ms Calpe said.
“This whole mechanism is jeopardized by the decisions of some exporting countries to restrict supplies,” she explained.
“In West Africa, production of rice seed is not good business. Rice and most African crops are not hybrid crops, which means they are not profitable for private companies,” She said. So the private sector did not bite.
“With non-hybrid seed, once you give a farmer the seed, he can then produce a crop and keep a seed supply for the next year. So it is a one-off deal.”
Private sector companies in fact deal mostly in hybrids because after one harvest, the farmer has to go back to the seed supplier year after year. Though seed is produced from hybrids, yields drop drastically, to half or even a third of what the first seed produced.
According to Ms Calpe, seed production, for this reason, is one of the many areas in agriculture that needs to be subsidized, especially for smallholder farmers. They do not have the resources to independently provide the inputs in what is decidedly a risky business with no guarantees.
Ramping up seed production
West African countries requesting assistance under the FAO Initiative for Soaring Food Prices in large part signalled a need for support in rice production, but the fact is that rice seed was in short supply because of the deterioration in the seed systems.
FAO is leading an emergency rice initiative to ramp up seed production wherever possible during the rainy season in August, and again in the dry season that begins in November in areas with adequate irrigation systems. For the first crop in spring 2009, the seeds will be in place for increased output.
Once production is boosted, high prices hold the promise of finally allowing farmers to profit from rice, and to further invest.
WARDA is FAO’s main partner in the ongoing work, but others working jointly on the project for sustainable revitalization of the sector include the International Center for Soil Fertility (IFDC), Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the International Rice Research Institute, Banque ouest-africaine de développement (BOAD), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and local farmers organizations and NGOs.
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