DOUALA, CAMEROON - Following the deadly food riots that swept across West Africa five years ago in response to the high price of rice, Cameroon and other neighboring governments have taken responsibility for rehabilitating structures and resources for rice farmers.
The grain is now one of the most consumed staples south of the Sahara. Experts across the region say consumers and national economies will be better for it.
One export says this national strategy will gradually bear fruit. “You know, we’re coming a long way after the economic crises of the 80s,” said Marc Samatana, the director of the Yagoua Rice Expansion and Modernization Corporation in north Cameroon.
Those were bleak times. “All our production equipment collapsed. The state pulled out of production, milling and commercialization. But following the 2008 food crisis, the state assumed its responsibilities and decided to completely rehabilitate production structures.
“Within two years, all our problems will be resolved,” Samatama said. Cameroon harvested only 64,000 tons of rice last year and had to import 365,000 tons. The government launched the National Rice Development Strategy in 2009 to revitalize rice research and cultivation. The target is to grow 630,000 tons by 2018.
Search for rice that survives drought
Elsewhere across the continent, governments and farmers are banking on science to increase production with high-yield, drought-resistant and environmentally-adapted seeds.
Nigerian bio-technologist Adekoya Modinat of the Shanghai Academy of Agricultural Sciences says researchers are looking for rice that can thrive in upland, lowland, irrigated as well as deep-water ecologies.
“In the traditional way, rice is planted in flooded plains and this is threatening to the environment,” he said. “We’re trying to see exactly how much water is needed for rice production and to develop drought-resistant varieties that can be planted with minimal water and which still have very good yields.”
Such research, funded by governments and donors, has revolutionized rice harvests in parts of the continent.
Mali, whose production hardly surpassed 170,000 tons in 2008, is a success story, said Boubakar Mane, a researcher at the Africa Rice Center, a leading research organization based in Cotonou, Benin.
“Now, it is producing close to two million tons, a ten-fold increase in less than five years. This just shows to what extent the right policies can make dramatic changes in rice and food production in our countries.”
So what’s the problem with rice?
Nonetheless, the number of such laudable strides remains few. Among lingering challenges is the snail pace with which research results get from the laboratories to the farms.
“We have difficulties cultivating rice,” said Philomena Foutchio, a small-scale rice grower in the northwest of Cameroon. “We don’t know the problem, and so we’re begging the government to help us because that is the only cash crop in northwest Cameroon. For this year, we don’t think we’ll come out with anything because the water is too much.”
Lack of rain is certainly one factor.
B.A. Awodite, a researcher at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, says another source of the problem is the failure of the government to distribute the innovations to a wider public. Awodite decries the absence of government policies facilitating farmers’ access to improved planting material.
“We have developed varieties and they are there on the shelves and cannot get to the farmers. So what do we do? We have to support small companies and farmers organizations. Governments must come up with policies whereby these companies are subsidized to deliver: help them to have access to credit and bank loans so they can do business and produce these varieties and then distribute to farmers.”
Researchers, growers, governments and other stakeholders are now counting on recommendations made at the 3rd Africa Rice Congress held in the Cameroonian capital, Yaoundé in October to surmount the hurdles.
They include increased investment to modernize and mechanize rice farming, increased farmers’ access to improved varieties and other research results, protection of the land rights of the mostly small-scale farmers growing the bulk of the continent’s rice, the strengthening of farmer organizations and public-private partnerships.
Building stronger farm organizations
A crucial element is funding for rice research, seed production and strengthened farm organizations.
Gambia’s minister of agriculture, Dr. Solomon Owens, says prospects for increasing Africa's rice yields are enormous. “We’re already doing well with the Maputo Declaration, allocating 10 percent of our national budgets to agriculture and a significant proportion of that is going to rice production.
“The opportunities are there because the land is there, the water is there; the farmers are prepared to increase their production. So, it’s for research to give us the technologies, give us the varieties and for the policymakers to come up with strong and bold policies.”
West Africa and Egypt are expected to mainly drive growth with a robust production recovery, and a target of 30 million tons by 2020.
Meanwhile, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Rice Market Monitor predicts rice harvests across the continent will exceed 27 million tons this year, a two-percent jump from last year and an indicator of gradual strides towards rice independence.