From one grain to another: The rise of rice in West Africa

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      Last month I flew from Europe to green Abidjan via arid Ouagadougou for the Borderless Alliance annual Conference 2015. Through the plane window I could see the most real and convincing evidence of regional disparities and complementarities amongst West African countries. It strengthened my conviction that, if agricultural development and food security are to be achieved in West Africa, the under-tapped potential for regional collaboration and integration has to be unlocked. CAADP/ECOWAP and the rice sector Rapid progress was made on the CAADP  (Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme ) process in West Africa since the Maputo declaration in 2003, reflecting a growing recognition that regional coordination is key for boosting Africa’s agricultural sector. ECOWAS (Economic Community Of West African States) is the first region to sign the regional compact in 2009 and also the first region to finalise its Regional Agriculture Investment Plan (RAIP), in 2010. The ECOWAS agricultural policy (ECOWAP), adopted in 2005, has prioritised key agricultural sectors. Rice has been selected as one of the strategic crops. This has led to the launch of a ‘Regional Offensive for the Sustainable Revival of Rice Production in West Africa’  in September 2012. The rice sector has also been put high on national agricultural agendas, and many countries, like Burkina Faso, also have a National Rice Development Strategy. Importance of rice in West Africa Rice is indeed a crop of utmost importance in West Africa. According to ECOWAS Commission and AfricaRice:
      • It is widely consumed throughout the region and demand is spurring, reflecting long-terms shifts in dietary patterns. The growth rate of the demand exceeds that of the production in the region, especially in years of poor weather conditions.
      • The region remains highly dependent on rice imports, mainly from Asia, with about 46% of consumption imported, at a cost of US$1 billion per year.
      • Many rice production systems coexist in West Africa, but most producers in the region are small-scale farmers (predominantly women) growing rice for home consumption under very low productivity systems.
      • The average yields for the region do not appear to have significantly changed over the past decade. This is primarily due to the small-scale farmers’ limited access to skills and inputs to improve productivity, reduce post-harvest losses, add value and market their produce.
      • There is a high political sensitivity on rice prices, with powerful rice importers influencing policy-making. Pressures for tax exemptions on imports work against domestic production.
      Cautious and weak regional objectives It can’t be denied that having a regional rice policy in place is by itself a very good step that shows political will to develop the sector and promote regional self-sufficiency through formal cooperation between ECOWAS member states. Nevertheless, the Regional Rice Offensive, even after its technical review in 2014, seems to be mainly supporting national production objectives (i.e., increase productivity, more area under rice production, enhance value of local production) and not a regional approach “taking advantage of the complementarities of the production basins”, as the RAIP states. There’s still an absence of explicit strategies based on regional complementarities and opportunities for cooperation. Through a real regional approach, transboundary rice production basins could be developed, shared water resources could be better managed for increased regional productivity and production basins could be specialised. Due to the highly differentiated nature of the market for rice in most West African countries, cross-border ethnic groups traditionally dealing with production, processing and trading of rice could be supported to get better organised and for example improve intra-regional aggregation process…It seems that the regional development component is still weak in the regional rice offensive. The impact of trade policies The development of the rice sector in the region faces another major challenge. After ten years of negotiation of a Common External Tariff (CET), a 10% tariff level instead of a higher rate was agreed based on considerations of consumer price levels, while it may discourage production and investment. Some countries like Nigeria use “CET special protection measures” to offer temporary protection at country level, hampering again regional integration. CET implementation in the region started in 2015 and is still very ineffective. The regional initiatives for the harmonisation of seeds regulations (including rice), pesticides and fertilisers are also not easily implemented at national level. Informal non-tariff barriers to trade and lack of policy enforcement at national level remain in place and govern the dynamics on the ground. Looking forward It may be early days to analyse the concrete effects of regional policies in the case of the rice sector. Yet, it appears that the CAADP/ECOWAP frameworks have ‘landed’ to some extent and are contributing to a promising dynamic at national level. A broad range of stakeholders view the Rice Offensive as a positive evolution. Yet, self-sufficiency goals in the region are still more country-focused than regionally oriented. West African countries comparative advantages should be carefully analysed in the context of the rice sector to have a Regional Offensive that seeks to address through adequate policies the main bottlenecks and constraints to regional development of the rice sector. An integrated and resilient regional rice sector is needed to reduce food imports and move towards the region’s own self-sufficiency objectives to contribute to food security in the region. But also to face two storm clouds that loom the horizon of the sector according to FAO recently published “Agricultural Growth in West Africa” study: world real prices for rice are expected to decline in the next decade (as per capita rice consumption decreases in Asia), and production conditions will significantly deteriorate as a result of climate change (particularly in Sahelian regions), reducing the profitability of production in the region.  

      The views expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of ECDPM

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