Africa holds great potential in contributing to food and nutrition security, and economic growth through innovative science, sustainable agri-food systems, and transformative partnerships.
As rice becomes a potentially strategic commodity in Africa, many countries have embarked on different programs to boost domestic rice production along with continental initiatives.
Rice is one of the key strategic crops for food security and a source of income for rice value chain actors in the project countries. Despite increases in rice production, the local supply however, has not been able to meet the growing demand, driven by changing consumer preferences and rapid urbanization.
Africa has become a major consumer of rice with an estimated annual import cost of over US$5 billion. Between 2010 and 2035, the continent will need an additional 30 million tons to meet this demand. According to Kilimo Trust, an independent body working on agriculture for development across East Africa, over 1.5 million farming households in the East African Community (EAC) depend on rice for food and income security with an average of US$550 per household every year from rice production enterprises.
According to 2020 data from AfricaRice and Africa Harvest, the rice import bill has risen sharply and is estimated at US$500 million per year. This potential growth is pushing AfricaRice and Africa Harvest to join forces with national partners to launch a three year–project seeking to boost East Africa’s rice productivity and competitiveness. The project that was launched last August, aims to address rice value chain constraints, strengthen functional linkages and improve capacity of farmers and input dealers, millers and marketers.
Titled ‘Strengthening the rice sector in East Africa for improved productivity and competitiveness of domestic rice’ (EARiSS), the project is expected to adapt appropriate rice technologies and innovations to address emerging rice value chain constraints. The outputs of the project will be relevant for at least 100,000 rice-farming households in East Africa.
“We are fortunate to work with Africa Harvest and our national partners in Kenya, Uganda and Madagascar on this project, which will help harness our combined knowledge and experience to address challenges along the rice value chain of these three countries,” said Dr. Harold Roy-Macauley, AfricaRice Director General. “We take this opportunity to convey our sincere thanks to the International Fund for Agricultural Development IFAD for enabling research outputs to contribute directly to targeted development outcomes,” he added.
Considering the potential of rice production in improving food and income security in East Africa, it is imperative that the continent creates avenues to facilitate knowledge exchange and take stock of ongoing efforts in the rice-based agri-food systems.
Challenges in rice production
However there are some challenges still affecting rice farmers within the EAC region. According to Rikolto East Africa, an NGO that partners with small-holder farmer organisations world-wide, despite the significant development of the rice sector in Tanzania and Uganda, there are still important challenges, especially the high production and trade costs and variable quality which limits the sector’s competitiveness in world market.
At the farm level, a key challenge is that markets do not incentivise farmers to invest in upgrading their production and post-harvest techniques. There is also lack of knowledge on how to improve quality and produce sustainably. When farmers want to invest, they also face challenges in accessing improved rice seeds and genuine fertilisers and pesticides.
There are differences between Uganda and Tanzania, a key one being that fertilisers are over-used in Tanzania and under-used in Uganda. This means that the cost per metric tonne of production is expensive compared to other countries, especially in Asia.
At the processing level, milling, storage, warehousing, and mechanisation services are poor in Uganda, but above average in Tanzania. However, Tanzanian mills are rarely running at full capacity and therefore the business profitability is often low. A significant reason for this is the lack of business analysis and planning in the sector, which means that government and donor support can lead to too many or the wrong type of mills in one area, or the cooperatives present do not have the capacity to run a processing business.
Overview of rice farming in East Africa
In East Africa, rice is an important food security crop, with an average per capita consumption at 25.8kg for Tanzania, 14kg for Kenya, and 8kg for Uganda. Consumption exceeds local production, with Kenya and Uganda being significant importers of rice; with demand for rice growing.
According to analysis by Rikolto there are large disparities in import dependency across the region; Uganda’s rice import share for example stands at 24 percent (MAAIF Statistical abstract 2018) while that of Kenya stands at about 80 percent. The governments of Tanzania and Uganda have recognised the opportunity for their rice sectors and protect their developing farmers, processors, and traders by imposing a 75% tariff on rice imports while Kenya has imposed a 35% tariff. They are also investing in new irrigation schemes, mechanising existing schemes and promoting new rice varieties.
Rice production in Uganda and Tanzania is dominated by smallholder farmers, although they are often operating within large irrigation schemes that were developed by the government with significant donor funds. Key donors like the World Bank, Africa Development Bank, Islamic Development Bank, and Japan International Cooperation Agency continue to prioritise support to rice sector development.
This can therefore be one way of addressing the food security issue by increasing rice production and productivity that will have a positive impact on household food security as well as increase farm incomes.