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Rice in West Africa

Revolutionary change in the preferences of West African consumers has created a wide and growing imbalance between regional rice supply and demand. Since 1973, regional demand has grown at 6.0% annually, driven by a combination of population growth (2.9% growth rate) and substitution away from the region’s traditional coarse grains. The consumption of traditional cereals, mainly sorghum and millet, has fallen by 12 kg per capita, and their share in cereals used as food from 62% in the early 1970s to 50% in the early 1990s.

In contrast, the share of rice in cereals consumed grew from 15% to 25% over the same period, and from 12% to 18% in calorie terms from the 1960s to the end of the 1990s. Much of this dramatic shift occurred in the late 1970s and 1980s. Per capita rice consumption has been increasing at more than 3% annually since the late 1990s. Accounting for population growth, this suggests that total rice consumption increased at nearly 6% per year during 2006-10. 

The most important factor contributing to the shift in consumer preferences away from traditional staples and toward rice is rapid urbanization and associated changes in family occupational structure. As women enter the work force, the opportunity cost of their time increases and convenience foods such as rice, which can be prepared more quickly, rise in importance. Similarly, as men work at greater distances from their homes in the urban setting, a greater proportion of meals is consumed from the market, where the ease of rice preparation has given it a distinct advantage. 

These trends have meant that rice is no longer a luxury food, but has become a major source of calories for the urban poor. Urban consumption surveys in Burkina Faso, for example, have found that the poorest third of urban households obtains 33% of its cereal-based calories from rice. For that same group, rice purchases represent 45% of its cash expenditures on cereals, a share that is substantially higher than for other income classes. Similar findings have been obtained in several other West African nations, demonstrating that rice availability and rice prices have become a major determinant of the welfare of the poorest segments of West African consumers who are the least food-secure. 

Production and imports

In comparison with the rapid growth in demand, regional rice production rose at 4.6% annually from 1973 to 2000. Although this rate was high vis-à-vis the performance of other major crops, it meant that regional rice production only barely exceeded population growth, and was meeting only two-thirds of the increments in demand. The source of the increases in rice production carries the important danger signal that such growth is not likely to be sustainable. Regional rice yields, which average slightly over 40% of the world mean, have risen at only 1.5% per year since 1983, at 2% per year since 2001, and at 5.2% since 2007. The major source of growth has been the expansion of cultivated area, which has grown at a remarkable 3.6% annually from 1973 to 2000.

The widening gap between regional supply and demand has been met by imports. The rapid increase in demand and much slower growth in production from 1973 to 1983 contributed to a dramatic jump in imports, which rose at more than 20% annually from 0.6 million t in the early 1970s to 2.2 million t a decade later. Since 1983, growth in imports has decelerated as domestic production has improved, leading to a much more modest 2.5% annual increase in imports, which averaged 2.8 million t in the early 1990s. Imports reached more than 3 million t in 1999, costing more than $800 million in scarce foreign exchange. Imports of this magnitude represent a major brake on broader development efforts. 

Rice economy liberalization and privatization 

The acceleration in per capita rice consumption since the mid-1990s is due to the liberalization of rice imports combined with a downward trend of the price on the world market. Rice trade liberalization has also opened the door to the importation of low-quality rice that can be purchased by the poorest groups. 


The privatization of the government-managed rice commodity chain has also allowed the emergence and fast growth of small-scale processing units in place of parastatal industrial mills. This has resulted in decreasing rice processing costs, thus improving the overall competitiveness of local rice vis-à-vis imported rice. But, this change has also led to a degradation of average local rice quality, which is becoming quite variable. Consumers used to favor lower-quality imported rice, because it is cleaner and more homogeneous, thus requiring less time for preparation. The future of the West African rice economy depends highly on improving local rice processing to meet the demand for consistent quality.Although production efficiency is improving in irrigated areas where local farmers’ organizations have taken over previously public institutions, the disruption of input supply and the unfinished reform of rural financial systems have resulted in a stagnation of yield in other areas. Most of the increase in irrigated rice production will rely on improved resource-use efficiency and rehabilitation of existing irrigation schemes. In the short term, the largest share of production will be in rainfed rice-based systems, which require labor­saving technologies. For the mid term, intensification in rainfed lowlands through the adoption of appropriate water management technologies offers a large and sustainable potential to increase rice production. 

Rice as women’s crop 

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In many areas of West Africa, rice is produced primarily by women farmers, thus representing an important share of their income. Women’s income tends to benefit children and other vulnerable groups more than does the income of men. Despite this fact, past efforts to develop and transfer new rice technologies have most often bypassed women farmers. Thus, although rice research can be particularly effective in improving the welfare of rural groups at risk, it needs to be explicitly structured and focused to deal with complex gender issues.

Rice, environmental degradation, and sustainable intensification

In highly populated areas of West Africa, rising cropping intensity in fragile upland ecosystems has already begun to degrade the resource base, with environmental damage and loss in production potential. Rice has a key role to play in providing options for sustainable intensification. Rice is uniquely well adapted to flooded lowland ecosystems where the soils are least fragile and best able to support continuous cultivation. The development of profitable lowland rice technologies is therefore a central element in strategies to induce farmers to reduce pressure on rapidly degraded uplands by shifting cultivation to lowland ecosystems. Relative to other cereals, rice also responds more to improved management and to higher inputs of nutrients, water control, and labor, and is thus favored as production systems intensify.

Rice-growing environments

Rice in West Africa is grown in several ecosystems and in a wide range of production systems.

The humid and subhumid “continuum” environment 

africa2This continuum is composed of several contiguous ecosystems in which rice can be grown within the warm subhumid and warm humid tropics of Africa.

Rainfed upland ecosystem. Rice in this ecosystem is sown on approximately 2.7 million ha, representing 47% of the total rice area and 40% of regional production. Although there is large scope for area expansion regionally, in locations where access to good arable soils is limited, expansion of upland rice cultivation can occur only by shifting out of other crops, by reducing the fallow period, or by exploiting soils less well suited to rice cultivation. Farm-level yields are low, averaging about 1 t/ha, and vary as a function of local soil and rainfall conditions. Moderate technical potential for increasing yield exists through improved management. Progressive farmers applying moderate input levels can now achieve yields of 2.5 t/ha, and yields of 4 t/ha and greater are commonly achieved on research stations.

Rainfed lowland/hydromorphic ecosystem. The rainfed lowland ecosystem comprises floodplains and inland valleys. Overall, rice is grown on about 1.9 million ha of rainfed lowlands representing 34% of the total rice area and 36.4% of regional production. Average yield across the rainfed lowlands is 2.0 t/ha. In the floodplains, rice can be grown on residual and water-table moisture in the broad, flat areas adjacent to rivers prone to seasonal flooding. Enormous technical potential exists to expand rice production in inland-valley lowlands, as currently only 10–15% of these areas are cultivated. It is estimated that sub-Saharan Africa has approximately 130 million ha of inland-valley lowlands and their hydromorphic fringes within which rice can be cultivated. Of this total, West Africa may have 20–30 million ha. The diversity of inland valleys is large. Although regional yields average around 1.4 t/ha, they vary according to local soil, landform, and hydrological conditions. Potential yields in unfavorable lowlands are around 2.5 t/ha, increasing to more than 5 t/ha in favorable lowlands.

Lowland irrigated ecosystem. This ecosystem covers about 142,000 ha in West Africa, representing 3% of the total area and 5.5% of regional production. The large technical potential for area expansion is constrained primarily by high investment costs. Current yields average around 3.0 t/ha. Progressive farmers employing moderate to high input management can obtain yields of 5 t/ha, and yields of 7 t/ha can be achieved on research stations.

The Sahelian irrigated environment 

Irrigated rice in the Sahel forms the second most important rice-producing environment in West Africa, covering 440,576 ha (7.7% of total rice area) and producing 8.5% of regional production. Irrigation potential is much greater, estimated at more than 3 million ha along the Senegal, Niger, Black Volta, Chari, and Logone rivers. This enormous technical potential has attracted large public investments: the first irrigation schemes were constructed in the Sahel in the 1920s. Until the recent introduction of privatization policies, the state has played a lead role in developing and managing irrigated rice schemes, with over 75% of the areas currently under parastatal control. The remainder is managed by a growing and increasingly dynamic private sector.

Because irrigated rice was an introduced production system in the Sahel, there were no traditional varieties or cultural practices upon which to build. Management skills in water control and rice cultivation vary widely. Mean paddy yields are currently about 4.5 t/ha, but vary widely from as low as 1 t/ha, rising to 4–6 t/ha if water is available throughout the season, to as high as 8 t/ha with modern input-responsive varieties and optimal management. Although rice-rice double cropping is currently practiced on only about 20% of the total area, by using varieties with appropriate duration and adaptation, an annual yield potential of 15 t/ha can be achieved.

The mangrove swamp rice environment 

Rice is also grown on approximately 147,000 ha of mangrove swamps, representing 3% of the total area and producing roughly 4% of the region’s output. Located on tidal estuaries close to the ocean, most mangrove swamps experience a salt-free growing period during the rainy season when freshwater floods wash the land and displace tidal flows. As a result, the rice-growing period is directly related to distance from the ocean, varying between less than 4 months in the nearest estuaries to more than 6 months in those more distant. Soils are generally more fertile than in the other environments since they benefit from regular deposits of silt left during annual flooding. However, the soils are also characterized by high salinity and sulfate acidity. Lower rainfall during the last two decades has reduced seasonal flushing substantially, further accentuating both problems. Although West Africa has approximately 1 million ha of potentially cultivable mangrove swamps, the high labor costs associated with clearing and potentially negative environmental effects pose major constraints to further area expansion.

The deepwater/floating rice environments 

Deepwater and floating rices represent a large but increasingly marginalized production system for which area and production figures are generally poor and vary widely. Estimates of sown area in the mid-1970s varied from 187,000 to 630,000 ha. It is generally believed that, with the control of river flooding because of the construction of dams and with lower rainfall, areas under these ecosystems have probably declined during the last 20 years. The estimated area under deepwater rice in West Africa at the end of the 1990s was 373,000 ha, or 8% of the rice-growing area, producing 5% of production at an average yield of 1.0 t/ha.

The major zones of production are located along the Niger valley around Mopti in Mali and Birnin Kebbi in Nigeria, and in northern Guinea. Deepwater rice ecosystems can be defined as those where flooding achieves a depth of from 60 to 100 cm, and floating rice systems as those where flooding exceeds 100 cm. These production systems are among the least developed in West Africa, with very little use of fertilizer or mechanization and dominated by the use of Oryza glaberrima and tall traditional O. sativa cultivars. As a result, yields are among the lowest in the region, and highly variable across sites and years. Research to improve these systems has made little progress.

Rice in East and Southern Africa

africa3Although rice has been grown in many East and Southern African (ESA) countries for more than 500 years, it has only been in the last two decades that consumption has increased significantly. In most of the ESA countries, rice was traditionally eaten as a delicacy on special occasions, but now it is often eaten daily. Because of urbanization and many women going back into the paid work force, rice has now become a regular part of the daily diet. The time taken for and ease of preparation, and the availability of better quality rice, have been contributing factors.

The production of rice in ESA increased by 57% from 1.19 million t in 2000 to more than 1.87 million t in 2010. During this period, the average yield increased by 17.5% from 1.52 t/ha to 1.78 t/ha and the area of production increased by 37% from 782,000 ha to 1.047 million ha.

In Burundi, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda, total rice consumption in 2010 reached more than 3 million t or 19 kg/person/year. Rice imports amounted to 1.2 million t per year in paddy equivalent, or more than 40% of all rice consumed in the region.

In Madagascar, rice production increased from 2.48 million t in 2000 to more than 4.74 million t in 2010 and annual consumption is now more than 170 kg/person. In Madagascar, imports account for only approximately 150,000 t, or 4%, of consumption.

Many of the rice varieties that are now grown originated in Asia. They have medium to long grains that are translucent and not sticky when cooked. Aroma is also considered an important trait. Most of the older varieties have long duration, taking 140–160 days to mature, and they do not respond well to the addition of fertilizer.

Rice environments

ESA has three major rice ecosystems: rainfed lowlands, rainfed uplands, and irrigated.

Rainfed lowlands

Rainfed lowlands are the predominant rice-growing ecology in ESA, making up more than 60% of the area. Rice is grown on relatively flat fields with surrounding bunds or levy banks to maintain water in the fields. Field sizes are small, normally 0.1–0.2 ha, located on river plains and higher elevation valley floors, which have heavier textured soils. Current yields in rainfed fields are 1.0–1.5 t/ha. Better management could increase this to 2.5 t/ha. In many ESA countries, marshlands are now being turned into rice fields. In these areas, yields are 3–4 t/ha and rice is grown as part of a crop rotation, normally with beans, maize, and vegetables. In most rainfed environments, only one rice crop is grown per year.

Irrigated

Rice grown under irrigation or supplementary irrigation covers approximately 25% of the total rice area. Many old schemes are being rehabilitated and yields average 3–4 t/ha. Potential yield is 5–6 t/ha and two crops could be grown per year in many areas. Salinity is a major problem in many of these older schemes as drainage systems have not been well maintained. Continuous cropping is also being used in many areas because of insufficient water availability. This is creating management and disease problems and new varieties are required. The cost of development for irrigated schemes in ESA is very high, with many costing more than $10,000/ha to develop.

Rainfed uplands

In ESA, rainfed uplands account for 15% of the total rice area. These areas are normally on sloping land where the soils are much lighter; the fields do not have bunds or levies. Yield is less than 1 t/ha. With the introduction of new NERICA varieties, the area of upland rice has expanded significantly in such countries as Uganda.

Constraints to production

africa4With the increase in popularity of rice as a food staple, many ESA countries have adopted a policy to double rice production over the next 10 years. Although a proportion of this increase will come from additional land under rice cultivation, improved varieties and better crop management will also be needed. The major constraints to production are poor crop management, the lack of disease-resistant varieties, and unavailability of labor at critical times. Poor land preparation, a lack of good-quality seed, high levels of plant diseases (especially bacterial leaf blight and blast), insufficient water at crucial times, poor weed control, and high postproduction losses during harvesting and processing all contribute to lower than expected production.

Although the introduction of farm equipment to overcome labor shortages and improve the timeliness of operations is a proven technology, it has not been successful to any significant degree in the region.

New varieties are now being released in a number of countries. These are the first new varieties released in more than 15 years. Breeding programs are being more closely aligned with market requirements and disease resistance is a high priority in variety selection.

The potential to increase rice production in ESA is high as there is a ready market, large tracts of very fertile soil, and a good supply of water. However, for this potential to be realized, governments need to support the introduction of farm machines and new varieties and build local capacity to support their farmers.

If you want to learn more, please read the Rice Almanac. You can purchase it on Kindle or download for free as a PDF.

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