Editors note: This is the first part of a two-article survey of rice in sub-Saharan Africa. The second article will cover the countries of West and Central Africa.
As a cereal crop and staple food, the place of rice has rapidly shifted in many countries of eastern and southern Africa from the margin to the mainstream. Both importation and local production of rice have been on the rise.
In rapidly developing Mozambique, high quality rice is now the preferred grain of the burgeoning urban middle class. Colorfully packaged Thai varieties occupy entire aisles of shelf space in gleaming new supermarkets of Maputo, Beira and Nampula, while maize meal dominates only in public markets.
Foreign firms, sometimes backed by their governments, have acquired vast tracts of farmland for creation of rice plantations. China and Vietnam are reported to each have 100,000-hectare grants in southern Mozambique.
Among the geographically and culturally diverse countries from Khartoum to Cape Town, the two top rice producing countries are Madagascar and Tanzania with 2.5 million tonnes and 1.4 million tonnes, respectively.
The top importing country is easily South Africa with 1.1 million tonnes, thanks to its big economy and large numbers of urban consumers. Three other aspiring middle-income countries each buy about 500,000 tonnes per year from outside: Mozambique, Kenya and Angola.
In all of sub-Saharan Africa, only economic giant Nigeria tops Madagascar as a producer and South Africa as an importer.
A few national and sub-regional snapshots serve to illustrate the enormous variety of the rice industry in this half of sub-Saharan Africa.
Among African countries, rice plays the biggest dietary and economic role in the giant Indian Ocean island where the 23 million people consume about 300 grams daily per capita.
Milled rice production of around 2.6 million tonnes is on a par with Nigeria and accounts for nearly 20% of all rice grown south of the Sahara. Imports of around 300,000 tonnes per year ensure variety and high quality packaged rice to city dwellers while cheaper varieties and grades help keep a lid on prices. Poor farmers grow the crop as much for subsistence as for cash.
In an interview with World Grain, a top manager of a leading Mozambican food importer stated that rice imports have been increasing on a year-to-year basis by 5% to 7%. Maputo accounts for 60% of the country’s total rice imports, he estimated. The rising middle class overwhelmingly prefers rice to maize meal.
Large importers bring rice in 25-kg and 50-kg bags in break bulk vessels saving $7 or $8 per tonne over containerized shipments. Vessels sizes are mostly 5,000 to 15,000 tonnes but sometimes 30,000 tonnes.
“New players are coming into the trade. Traditional wholesalers have begun their own imports in containers with their own brands,” the industry insider added. “More and more traders are now getting into rice imports.”
He estimates there are more than 50 importers now, but the top five still have a 50% market share.
In Maputo, 80% of the imported rice is from Thailand. It is almost all 5% broken, but just 10 to 15 years ago the standard grade was 25% broken, before shifting to 15% broken.
In the less prosperous center and north, the standard is still 15% broken. The share of 25% broken is now very small. There is also more Pakistan and Indian origin rice in the Beira and Nacala corridors. Basmati rice is a small but growing share of the market.
Local rice is a sweet, long grain. Production is increasing in the rain-fed southern zone where it does well and now accounts for about one third of total consumption that stands at 750,000 tonnes. Some high quality domestic rice is also available in Maputo supermarkets from various rice millers in the south.
“In a good year, Tanzania is self-sufficient in rice production,” said Carter Coleman, CEO of U.K.-based Agrica Ltd, operator of a large commercial rice farm in Tanzania. He maintains that exports to neighboring Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, all members of the EAC as well as to eastern and southern DRC, can exceed volumes of low-cost rice coming in from Asia.
Much of the incoming rice is smuggled via Zanzibar. The Tanzanian island has a special status in the EAC and is allowed to impose only a 12% duty on rice. Four or five companies bring rice legally to the island where it is re-bagged and transported along the coast to small “pirate” or “dhow” ports as the local media calls them. Official data have shown Zanzibar with by far the largest per capita rice consumption in the world.
Coleman, who is also vice-chairman of the Rice Council of Tanzania, thinks that the 75% EAC import duty will be needed for some time. The Rice Council has issued a position paper that says East Africa is decades away from competing with Asian exporters of rice on a cost basis.
“Farming is rocket science and farming in Africa is like farming on Mars. You must be totally self-sufficient. You need 1.5 times the number of tractors and combines because parts are not readily available.”
Rice production in Tanzania is in four main zones including the Tsonga River Valley in the south and Arusha/Moshi area near Mount Kilimanjaro in the north.
Production is a mixture of corporate farms and smallholders. ETG’s Kapunga farm with 3,000 hectares irrigated via a 12-km canal from the Ruaha River near the Malawi border is one of the largest. It was a Japanese government project in the 1970s and was only privatized eight years ago.
Coleman remains optimistic about better government control over smuggling thanks in part to the media campaign of the Rice Council supported by its 350,000 smallholder members. Agrica’s Tanzanian farm has plans to install center pivots to increase irrigated area from 1,445 hectares to 3,037 hectares with cropping during both the rainy and dry seasons.
Small farmers have been benefiting from introduction of new varieties and better agronomic practices. In the past, rice was sown by broadcasting. Now more transplanting is being introduced. New varieties include hybrids and aromatic varieties related to basmati.
Elsewhere in the Great Lakes Region, rice has a long history as a cash crop in certain well defined areas with irrigation schemes such as the Ruzizi Plain between Lake Kivu and Lake Tangayika, straddling Burundi and South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as well as in Uganda on the flood plain below Mount Elgon near the southeastern border with Kenya.
Internationally funded projects carried out decades ago built dams and canals and leveled land in these areas and the local population was introduced to rice cultivation.
Indian rice producer Tilde has invested in rice farming and milling in Uganda, focusing on the basmati varieties it is known for.
In Rwanda, there has been a recent push to carve rice paddies out of the bottom of narrow river valleys throughout the country, but yields in some rain-fed highland areas can reach six tonnes per hectare.
A multitude of donors have funded projects to introduce improved seed varieties, fertilizers, mechanized farming implements, and better drying and storage facilities. The results are often mixed but progress has been made. In Bukavu, the largest city in South Kivu, the Heineken-owned Bralima brewery sources locally from the Ruzizi Plain nearly all of its rice used as an adjunct. It was still importing rice from Asia several years ago and its need has increased as beer consumption has risen sharply.
In remoter parts of DRC, such as the interior of South Kivu province, rice is an important rain-fed, subsistence crop that is hand sown, manually harvested and husked. Yields rarely exceed one tonne per hectare.
Kenya’s rice imports are large because it has negotiated an exemption to the EAC common external tariff that allows Pakistan rice to come in with a 35% duty in reciprocity for special treatment of Kenya’s tea exports to Pakistan.
In South Africa, imported rice consumption mainly by middle and high-income groups in large cities has more than doubled to 1.1 million tonnes from 523,000 tonnes in 2000. Diversified food majors like Tiger Foods import and package rice under their house brands. Still, the per capita consumption figure is low among the 55-million population as maize meal remains the main staple among most groups.
The pattern is similar in other large countries like Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Oil rich, highly urbanized and food import dependent Angola has seen foreign rice consumption increase by a factor of seven in a span of 10 years from 65,000 tonnes to 450,000 tonnes.
Horn of Africa
Imported rice and pasta are traditional food staples accompanying a semi-nomadic herding and trading way of life in Somalia as well as ethnically Somali Djibouti and the eastern Somali Region of Ethiopia. Smuggling is rampant so reliable import numbers are hard to come by. In Djibouti, trade data showing 120,000 tonnes of imports indicates consumption of over 120 grams per capita daily.
Rice production is a relatively new phenomenon in Ethiopia, where cereals cultivation is an ancient practice, but is starting to take hold. Planted area has increased by several times since 2005 and government is forecasting a 140,000 tonne crop for 2014-15. Foreign investors have been granted large tracts of untilled land in the water-rich tribal lowlands of the southwest to be converted to major rice plantations through costly investments in land preparation.
On the highland plain around Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, in the last decade farmers have increasingly learned to take advantage of annual flooding during the summer monsoon season by sowing rice instead of seeing traditional grain crops drowned.
Gradually, local rice is becoming a part of the urban diet in Addis Ababa and regional centers, just as it is increasing its “share of stomach” in almost all large cities of Africa.