Outside the village of Dak in central Senegal, women sing and dance as they mow down rice stalks with a sickle or knife. The harvest is underway in this West African country, but there won’t be enough for everyone.
Many African countries rely on imports – and the market was upended by restrictions imposed by India in September.
In a bid to control domestic prices hit by a crippling drought, India, the world’s largest rice exporter, had banned exports of broken rice and imposed a 20% export tax on certain non-basmati varieties.
In several African countries that depend on imported rice, self-sufficiency has become a buzzword.
“The risk (of a rice shortage) in Senegal is real,” said Waly Diouf, coordinator of a program to end foreign dependence on this staple.
“We don’t want to buy imported rice anymore, it’s very expensive,” said Dieteo Diouf, who heads a women’s association in Dak, in the central region of Fatick.
Fish and rice, or ceebu jen in the Wolof language, is the most popular dish in Senegal and UNESCO has even included it on the list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
Rice became a major staple after French colonialists in search of a new outlet shipped it from Indochina during the 19th century, to the detriment of local subsistence agriculture.
Panic and speculation
Africa accounts for 13% of the world’s population but 32% of global rice imports, according to Africa Rice, a research center created by 28 nations and based in Abidjan.
“Local rice production covers only about 60% of current demand in sub-Saharan Africa, which means that 14 to 15 million tonnes are imported every year,” the center said.
India’s decision to restrict exports has caused panic in several countries, including the Comoros islands in the Indian Ocean. A quarter of its 8,90,000 inhabitants live below the poverty line of two euros per day per person.
Clashes erupted in late September as the price of a 25kg sack of rice rose by almost a third.
On the east coast of the mainland in Liberia, which is also experiencing intense poverty, large queues have formed in front of wholesalers as rumors of rice shortages have spread.
This has helped push the price of a bag from just under $14 to over $24 in Liberia and has seen the government appeal for calm.
The Senegalese government recently intervened and set the price of a kilogram of Indian and Pakistani broken rice at 50 euro cents to avoid panic and try to stop speculation.
Broken rice is one of the cheapest available and almost the only one imported into Senegal, Waly Diouf said.
In 2008, the country suffered “food riots” due to soaring food prices.
In recent years, Senegal has grown around 8.40,000 tonnes of rice per year, or about nine months of local consumption, Diouf said.
The country “imports an average of 9,000,000 tonnes of rice. It is more than necessary, but imports help keep the product available and avoid speculation,” he added. The aim is to reduce dependence on imports, mainly by increasing the area in production.
“By 2030, rice consumption in Senegal is expected to reach 1.5 million tonnes,” Diouf said. “We have developed a new strategy to move towards self-sufficiency. Financially, it will cost around 1.37 billion FCFA ($2.22 million).
Others say that many obstacles must be overcome to achieve this oft-stated goal of self-sufficiency.
“We need more rice paddies, more credit, more combine harvesters, we need to rebuild our irrigation systems,” said Mouhamadou Moustapha Diack, who heads the producers’ union in Boudoum in the north.
The old dykes and water channels between the rice fields are covered with lilies and eucalyptus.
Beyond the quantity, the supposedly lower quality rice grown in Senegal has long put off some local consumers.
“That has changed,” said Birame Diouf, who runs a rice factory in Ross Bethio in the north.
The plant removes impurities such as gravel and small stones before the rice grains are engulfed by huge cleaning tanks and processed into whole or broken grains ready to be cooked.
Senegal hopes to follow the example of Ivory Coast where rice imports from India have fallen by 24% from 2021 to 2022.
Abidjan’s rice development agency, Aderiz, reports “clear progress” in substituting Ivorian rice for foreign imports.
Nigeria, meanwhile, followed a different strategy and imposed heavy taxes on imported rice in an attempt to stimulate local production.