DOUALA, CAMEROON - A few decades ago, rice was a luxury for rural Africa, a dish reserved for the big occasions like Christmas. The grain is now one of the most consumed staples south of the Sahara and experts predict surging urbanization will drive more demand for the cereal as consumer tastes increasingly tilt towards easy-to-cook convenience foods.
Across Africa, rice currently knows no social or class boundaries. Increasingly, the grain ranks high on the menus of both rural and urban households.
One consumer on the streets of Douala said, “I often buy a bag of rice for the family that will last about a month.” Another added, “Three days out of seven, we eat rice at home. Sometimes, it’s up to four times a week.”
The reason for its popularity is that rice is more affordable now and easier to store and cook. Yet, despite its swelling weight in the shopping baskets of Africans, the continent’s production continues to lag far behind demand. Africa produces barely half of its rice needs and consequently depends heavily on imports to bridge demand-supply rifts.
Rice consumes foreign reserves
Boubakar Mane is a researcher at the Africa Rice Center, a leading research organization based in Cotonou, Benin. “Actually, Africa is producing about 60 percent and importing about 40 percent of what it consumes. And this amounts to a huge loss of our meager foreign exchange reserves every year.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the continent’s imports of milled rice - mainly from Asian growers - hit a record 12-million-ton high in 2012, costing over US$5 billion. That’s up from 10 million tons in 2009.
Experts warn that the heavy reliance on imports is risky and untenable as current economic forecasts predict rising prices in a volatile market and dwindling global stocks over the coming decade.
“What we call the world rice market is very thin,” said the African Rice Center’s Mane. “Only about 6 percent of all the rice produced in the world is actually placed on the international rice market and it is very sensitive to shocks which can come easily with climate change.”
Storms disrupt harvests around the world
Mane also warns that changing climates could provoke short-notice supply slumps at any time. The destructive force of Hurricane Haiyan on November 8, for example, has destroyed much of the rice crop in the Philippines and will likely impact the world market.
“Serious flooding in some of the major producing countries like China and India can have serious repercussions for the world supply of rice. And sometimes when people have scares about food supplies in their countries, governments restrict rice exports and our major importers like Cameroon, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire and others suffer seriously.”
Spikes in the price of rice were responsible for deadly food riots across West Africa back in 2008. Ever since, the grain has steadily gained attention as a critical role player for food security and political stability throughout the continent. As a result of the public outcry over the price of rice, this cereal has attained increased status as a major “political crop” capable of creating or destroying the political, social or economic stability of African nations.