By Leocadia Bongben
Rice farmers, researchers and government officials have been implored to help increase rice production across Africa to feed its rapidly increasing populations as the only way to stop importing the food staple from Asia and the USA.
This is one of the resolutions arrived at during the 3rd Africa Rice Congress that took place in the Cameroonian capital Yaounde between October 21-23 2013 under the theme “rice science for food security, through small holder and agro-business development in Africa”.
Sub-Saharan countries produced only 19 million tons of rice with Asia accounting for 90 percent of global rice production with 640 million tons according to 2009 figures.
Last year, African countries spent 5 billion dollars to import rice they have the resources and land to be self-sufficient in rice production.
The Yaounde congress was meant to teach farmers new techniques and expose them to research that could help improve their rice production to avoid the deadly 2008 global food crisis that affected Africa badly. Hundreds of people were killed by security forces across the continent when they rose up to protests against food price hikes.
According to Marco Wopereis, Assistant Director for the Africa Rice Centre in Benin, “rice production increased from 3 to 8 per cent since the crisis”.
However, production has been relatively slow because of wide ranging problems. One of the most annoying problem farmers grapple with is harvesting and threshing. Harvesting is not mechanized while a vast majority of farmers still use their hands for threshing-separating the grains from the portion of the plant that holds them.
Ngong Violet Tabali produces rice on a 15 hectare farmland in Ndop, Ngoketunjia sub division in North western Cameroon.
“When the grains are yellowish and the whole field has a uniform colour, is the best time to harvest”, she says but admits she has problems harvesting because she does not have a large labour force.
Because she cannot get the labour force she needs when it is time for harvesting, she loses some of the rice.
“Every family is sends their children to school and the labour force is not quite enough. We therefore take a long time to harvest.”. The time that is wasted affects harvest in that the rice gets dry and some of the grains fall off and that is always a marginal production lose to any rice farmer.
Mahamadou Hassane, a rice farmer from Benin grows rice only a 2 hectare plot and manages to harvest only six tons.
“We harvest the rice manually as we don’t have the tools and threshing is done with empty tins and the grains get scattered and broken in the process”.
Some other issues small farmers like Hassane and Tabali face are access to good seeds, fertilizers and other complimentary inputs that could help improve their yields. The fact that they also farm in small farm areas does not help matters. The congress helped both understand the necessity to introduce machinery in their farming and both have said they will invest in buying combined harvesters. They also learnt other uses for rice which could include producing biscuit’s, pudding and flour.
The role of rice researchers in improving yields.
According to rice researcher Ndingdeng Sali Atanga, the easiest way to reduce post-harvest loses is to respect harvesting dates.
Some farmers don’t and lose part of their yields unnecessarily. He said farmers also need to dry their rice adequately after harvesting.
To reduce breakage , partially cooked rice is encouraged.
“This pre-cooked rice becomes compact and does not break during milling. This helps to retaining the nutrients in the rice and also fuses the starch to reduce breaking”, Atanga noted.
In the past, farmers used drums to parboil the rice but there are plans to introduce improved boiling containers to the population.
Another technique farmers would have to learn would be the production of briquettes from rice husks and brans to replace wood in boiling the rice.
Most farmers will not benefit from the equipment proposed to help improve their yields because they are not yet available
Proposals for future improvement
Participants to the congress noted the over dependence on small-scale resource poor farmers was not helping matters. They said more effort to be made to bring in large scale rice production. They also noted that more women and youths had to be encouraged to get involved in rice farming.
Participants also urged governments to consider establishing strategic regional rice reserves so they could rely more on national stocks in time of shortages. They noted that they must be coordination at the regional level to avoid price instability.
Governments of African countries were also called upon to comply with the Maputo Declaration by increasing investment in the rice sector and funding more scientific research that will improve rice yields.