Senegalese born Economist, Dr. Aliou Diagne, has called on African governments to create the enabling environment to help farmers feed the African continent. He said unless this is done urgently, a large majority of Africans will go hungry and this could lead to a repeat of the 2008 unrests that were caused by a hike in the prices of food.
Diagne who works for the US based Pan African Rice Centre, a leading research organization that helps to provide food security solutions was one of the high profile researchers who attended the Yaounde Rice Congress that held from October 21-24 2013.
He explains why African countries still spend billions of dollars importing rice from abroad and the negative impact this has on the continent.
He spoke to Leocadia Bongben.
Q What would you say are the main reasons that African countries still import rice from abroad though they have the capacity to grow their own rice?
The main problem why Africa continues importing rice is that rice consumption is growing very fast for several reasons. The first reason is population growth; second, changing preference. Rice is easier to process, to store and also to prepare for food. This is the reason those who live in the cities turn to rice instead of their traditional foods like millet and sorghum which are more difficult to prepare than rice. Many consumers are now also eating rice because imported rice is more or less cheaper and easier to access in the city. This is why the consumption of rice is growing very fast. This is why Africa is importing. The production is still low although it has increased by 8.7 per cent – projected next year to be at 26 million tons and importation will be at 12 million tons. Overall consumption is about 34 million tons.
Q With the creation of your organization (Rive Africa) is this a good sign Africa might soon start producing enough rice to feed the population?
Yes, just to give you an example. The Nerica variety that has been introduced in Cameroon. Many farmers before were not growing rice in the upland area where they don’t need water. Just with the rain now, they can grow rice and this has helped many countries to produce more rice. There are several things that research in general, IRAD and several other research organisations are doing to produce some rice varieties and other technologies.
Q But, why is it that African governments cannot give subsidies to rice farmers?
They are now giving some subsidies but it is not enough. They don’t give enough as is the case in Asian countries.
Q Can you evaluate the amount of subsidy given in Africa?
Well it depends on the country. Some countries subsidise seeds, and even provide farmers with free seeds of up to 80 per cent, some provide farmers with fertiliser up to 50 per cent. However, this is often not enough. For rice to get high yield, there is need for irrigation schemes and to irrigate there is need to construct dams and all related investment. If African countries can increase their yield by just 50 percent, the continent will be self sufficient and even export some rice.
Q Though African governments are now helping farmers, production still remains very low. Why is this the case?
Production is growing in Africa but this is not enough. In the past up to 2007, production was growing at the rate of 3.2 per cent and in 2008 at the rate of 8.7 percent. It means that it is increasing because farmers are growing rice better with the support of governments. Governments are making much effort though it is not enough because of some big challenges-. Asia moved from 40 per cent to zero percent importation and that is not something that can be done overnight. You need long term sustained investment. That is what some African governments have started to do and we need to encourage them and all other stakeholders to increase their efforts.
Q What are some of the challenges faced in the the rice production chain
Farmers need good seeds to improve their yields. Some governments help them with this but it is insufficient. Farmers face many challenges growing rice.
Q Who should provide the best quality seeds to farmers?
Governments need to invest in terms of facilities; enabling research to produce enough and good quality seeds to be multiplied and made available to the private sector so that they can sell to farmers. Farmers need to be able to easily find the seeds of the variety they want and the quality they need. This is not yet the case though things are improving a little bit but we are far from being satisfied.
Q Apparently, farmers also need fertilizers to improve their yields?
Yes of course. As I said, some governments are making an effort in that direction but it is largely insufficient.
It is very tricky. Farmers need to have access to credit and we need to solve the institutional problems. But farmers also need to know that people are helping and they should also help the system.
Q How can farmers help the system?
By repaying back money they borrow. In many countries, the credit system is not working because there are many farmers who are not repaying their loans. Not all, but there are some farmers who are cheating the system though, there are other good farmers who pay their loans. This makes providing the credit to farmers very difficult. There is lack of trust. But, the system should also be able to punish those who do not pay; this is lacking and is just one area. Secondly, there is the necessity to make the credit system work so that farmers can assess credit to buy fertilizers, although the fertilizer needs to be subsidized, because at some of the prizes, farmers will not afford it. The third area is mechanisation. Right now, rice is being produced with elementary tools and this is not going to help Africa because, it requires too much labour which is not available. We need to introduce adapted mechanization, not the huge tractors, this will not work but, locally built adapted machines should be made available to farming communities. Governments also should help provide public infrastructure like storage facilities for farmers to store their produce.Though this may not be enough,private entrepreneurs should invest in milling or enable and allow producer associations to buy their milling facilities so that they can provide milling services to their members.Of course, irrigation facilities should be expanded. But, these are all challenges that need to be overcome, and they can happen with more effort..
Q These small machines are they easy to assess in Africa?
Yes. The small machines are already being made and some are on display here during this congress. There is one thresher made here and only the engine was imported. A mini combined harvester is being constructed, some people have been trained to make it locally, and only the engine and the gear box would be imported.This is more sustainable that importing the whole machines like the big tractors and mini combined harvesters. When they break down, nobody can fix them. In many cases, these imported machines are not adapted to the African condition. Mechanization is possible and it can be made in a way that it can work and attain employment but we have to do it in the right way.
Q How do you foresee the future of rice production in Africa?
The future is bright because we don’t have any other choice; the world is relying on Africa to feed itself in the future. In the past, other continents especially Asia needed to help in feeding African people. China in the past used to be a rice exporter, but, for the past three years,China has been importing rice and they are going to continue importing because rice is the main staple food in China. Africa’s population is growing very fast if it does not produce more rice,it will still need to import rice which is not a good solution to the problem.
Q And you think Africa has the capacity to increase its rice production?
Yes. if we increase the land allocated for rice production by 15 per cent. Yields can be easily increased with the new available technology. If investment in the sector is increased, Africa will be self sufficient and will be in a position to even export rice to other countries.
Q Where is the place of the small farmer in all this?
The small holder is at the centre of the chain. In Africa, the producer is the small holder and not the big industrial farmer. All that Africa is achieving now is thanks to the small holders and it would be thanks to them if we are going to be self-sufficient. Of course things are not working as we like at the small holder level. But, we could assist the small holder like the Asian countries assist their farmers. The small farmers are the ones going to feed us. If we don’t help them so that they can feed us, we are going to go hungry.