Nigeria has taken drastic measures to develop its local rice production, riding on the coattails of Mali, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire.
Some 300bn CFA francs for Côte d’Ivoire, around 190bn for Senegal and about 163bn for Cameroon: these are the amounts the three countries spend annually on rice imports to make up for their production shortfall.
In recent years, however, they have undertaken (like every state in the region, beginning with Nigeria) to attain self-sufficiency as rapidly as possible. In Dakar, this goal was slated to be reached in 2017, but ultimately Senegal came up short. Abuja is aiming for 2022, Niamey 2021 and Abidjan has set 2025 as its target date. Governments are grappling with food security and national sovereignty questions.
In West Africa, rice, more than any other grain, is strategic. Due to the convergence of multiple factors, including demographic growth, urbanisation and increased individual needs, rice consumption has quadrupled in 30 years, according to the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD).
COVID-19 raises the stakes of food self-sufficiency
“Despite progress made in increasing local production, particularly through the expansion of rice growing fields, the region has to import the equivalent of 45% of its total rice consumption,compared to 40% at the beginning of the 2010s and only 20% in the 1960s and 70s,” says Patricio Méndez del Villar, a senior researcher specialising in rice at CIRAD.
As a result, the region’s rice imports – primarily coming from Asia – have skyrocketed, tripling between 1990 and 2018 to represent around one-fourth of the world’s rice imports, according to CIRAD.
Although countries made efforts to counter this trend by aiding production and imposing import barriers, the 2008 financial crisis broke their momentum: faced with surging rice prices, they abandoned protectionist measures in an effort to prevent shortages and rioting.
Since that time, public and private initiatives have been multiplying as the COVID-19 pandemic brings back the risk of supply problems and raises the stakes of food self-sufficiency.
Drastic measures in Nigeria
In the race to attain self-sufficiency, Nigeria stands apart. Since 2015, under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari, the country has taken significant steps to reduce its reliance on food imports, with a focus on rice.
After implementing a steep tax increase on imported grains, Buhari blocked food importers’ requests for foreign currency to prevent them from being able to pay for imports. Later, in August 2019, he decided to close his nation’s borders to prevent rice from being smuggled into the country, most of which comes from Benin.
The controversial policy seems to be paying off:Nigeria is the only country out of three African nations ranked amongst the top 20 rice producers in the world (alongside Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal) to have reduced its imports between 2013 and 2019, according to the Geneva-based trader Alliance Commodities, even though prices ended up spiking as a result of the measure.
In parallel, Abuja has provided support to the private sector through a series of measures (a guaranteed minimum price, input supply, farm loans, tax exemptions for rice plants, etc.). Such measures have helped to boost the productivity of small-scale farmers (who make up 80% of the sector) and encourage large companies (which account for just 20% of producers) to make investments, including domestic leaders such as Dangote, Coscharis and BUA, as well as foreign players like Olam and Stallion (a conglomerate owned by the Indian national Sunil Vaswani and headquartered in Dubai).
Singapore’s Olam also has plans to produce 240,000 metric tons of rice in the upcoming farming season, while Aliko Dangote’s company invested $1bn in 2017 to increase cultivation of rice to 150,000 hectares and set up 10 plants with the ambition of reaching an annual 1 million metric tons by 2022.
Mali, virtually autonomous
In the French-speaking world, although results have been modest, three players stand out from the pack. Mali, a landlocked country with a longstanding tradition of rice farming, constitutes a historical exception since it has largely been able to maintain its self-sufficiency (it produced more than 3 million metric tons of rice in 2018, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization [FAO]).
“Mali has enough rice to export to neighbouring countries,” says Pierre Ricau, a market analyst at Nitidæ. More recently, Senegal, in 2010, and Côte d’Ivoire, in 2012, developed a national rice strategy.