Steve Wiggins and Sharada Keats at the Overseas Development Institute have just put out a briefing on ‘The end of cheap rice’. They argue that the high rice prices of 2007-08 that I have written about before marked the transition to a world of sustained higher rice prices. The reasons are technological (yields are running out of headroom in Asia), climate-related (downward pressure on yields) and demographic (population growth in rice-consuming countries). Asian governments have accentuated this transition by export bans (in India) and domestic buying programs (in Thailand).
Higher prices for rice mean a transfer of income from rice consumers in cities to rice producers in rural areas. The largest net importers are in coastal West African countries and the largest exporters in south-east Asia. Rice farmers in West Africa could benefit from this, provided they are net sellers (many are not, relying on sales of rubber or other cash crops to get through the lean season). So is rice production in West Africa increasing to meet the demand?
First, let’s look at production in the 4 Mano River Union countries, plus Ghana. With some ups and downs, it has increased gradually over the past twenty years. Guinea is the leading producer, at almost 1.5 million tonnes, but Liberia and Sierra Leone have also recovered to their pre-war production levels.
Next, let’s look at imports. These are also substantial. Côte d’Ivoire is the largest importer by a long way, importing roughly twice as much rice as it produces. Liberia’s imports are roughly the same its production; only Guinea and Sierra Leone are anywhere close to self-sufficiency. (Big disclaimer: the data on FAOStat only go to 2009, and if you live in this part of the world you soon learn to distrust official statistics, because statistics bureaux are poorly resourced and a lot of food flows across borders without being recorded).
Across the region, the overall picture seems to be that production and imports have been increasing at similar rates. Consumption is fairly consistently twice the level of production. That may have changed in the last few years, for which FAOStat doesn’t record import data, but the evidence from the production figures, and more recent balance of imports data from Liberia, is that there has been no major change since prices surged in 2007.
What might change this picture? Liberia is hosting a CAADP conference this week, which might shed some light. There are a number of widely-touted remedies, none of which are without problems. First, building roads makes it easier for farmers in rural areas to get their rice to market, but also makes it easier for imports to penetrate the rural areas (Côte d’Ivoire has about the best roads in the region, but also the highest level of imports). Second, removing import tariffs on rice, as Liberia has done, keeps the cost of imported rice lower for the urban population, but reduces the incentive to buy local rice – something that the Liberian government tried in 1979 with disastrous consequences, riots that led to a coup, that are still remembered by the President and Minister of Agriculture (who were both in government at the time). Local content requirements, like the Nigerian government’s insistence that locally baked bread contain at least 10% cassava flour, don’t really work for rice, since it only needs hulling before it is consumed. As for improved seed and fertiliser, like the celebrated Nerica varieties (New Rice for Africa), these certainly seem to have helped production in Guinea, but are slow to take hold elsewhere, as there is hardly a public extension service and very little agro-dealer penetration in rural areas, unlike Southern or East Africa.
For now at least, we can conclude that the increase in West African production that Wiggins and Keats anticipate has not materialised yet. Maybe the production surge, when it comes, will come from land-locked countries, like Mali and Niger, where imports are relatively more expensive, and demographic pressures even more intense than the coastal cities.