Benin: rice offers new hope

High quality seeds could help the country to become self-suficient and export surplus output

15 July 2009, Rome - Will Benin be self-sufficient in rice one day? Experts at FAO are forecasting just that, and going so far as to say that in time - probably as soon as 2011 - this West African country will even export its surplus rice output. A two-pronged strategy based on intensifying production and marketing of high quality seeds is behind the predicted «miracle».

As part of the campaign, a US$500,000 FAO project, due to begin in September 2009, will help Benin achieve an ambitious goal: that of producing 300,000 tonnes of rice - more than double current output - by 2011. To do that, the country will have to produce more than 2,200 tonnes of high quality rice seeds each year.

The plan to intensify Benin's national rice production was conceived against a backdrop of rising food prices, with the situation made even more serious by the fact that, in common with other West African nations, domestic output is far from able to satisfy ever-growing demand.

According to FAO figures, West African rice imports reached 6 million tonnes in 2001 and forecasts suggest the figure is likely to rise to 11 million tonnes by 2010.

A net gain of more than US$55 million

The best way of reducing Benin's rice import bill (it bought nearly 240,000 tonnes in 2004, according to the latest official figures available), would be to exploit the country's rice cultivating potential to the full. FAO experts say that such an approach would not only enable the country to satisfy local demand but would also put it in a position to export surplus output to sub-regional and regional markets.

These same experts calculate that if Benin exploited its full rice production potential, the net gain would be more than US$55 million. The country currently exploits just 8% of this potential, though it has more than 322,000 hectares of rice-growing land available, including 205,000 hectares of lowlands and 117,000 hectares of floodplains.

Rice is therefore a key product and a priority in the plan to revive the country's agricultural sector. And the FAO project, which encourages the production of high quality seeds while facilitating farmer access to such seeds, is consolidating the efforts of the Benin government, which has set the goal of reducing rice imports as a priority target.

In the medium term, an increase in production of high quality rice seeds should lead to a sufficient rise in annual rice output to cover 70% of domestic demand. In addition, increased revenues would lead to better livelihoods for farmers and would make local rice cultivation production more competitive.

As an added bonus, the Africa Rice Centre (WARDA) asserts that protein levels in rice obtained from high quality seeds, especially the NERICA variety (see Box), are considerably higher than those of traditional varieties.

Supporting the FAO project are WARDA, various departments within the Benin government and several local NGOs.

Photo: ©FAO/Pietro Cenini
Rice is the staple food of more than half of the world population.