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Covid-19 and Rice Production in Africa

By: Shira Petrack

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes 

The repercussions from the Covid movement restrictions and supply chain disruptions expose the need for food sovereignty in Africa. The region has the agricultural potential to produce enough rice to feed itself and to export abroad. Agribusinesses that collaborate with African farmers to increase yields can cater to the growing demand for foodstuff on the continent and contribute to Africa’s food security while enjoying a market characterized by relatively low competition and steadily growing demand. 

The Need for Rice Sovereignty in Africa

The fallout from Covid-19-related containment measures has highlighted once more the importance of increasing agricultural production in Africa. The region still imports a significant portion of its food, making the continent particularly vulnerable to disruptions in the global food supply chain. Now, it seems the pandemic might be threatening Africa’s rice deliveries

Rice imports are critical to food security on the continent. Even Nigeria, the largest rice-producing country in the region, still imports a significant portion of its rice, despite government efforts to curtail imports and boost local rice production. Around 12% of the rice grown locally is lost post-harvest due to inefficient milling and inadequate storage and transportation. West Africa, the largest rice-producing region, also imports a large portion of its rice, although imports decreased from 50% in 2010 to 30% in 2020. East Africa imports on average around a quarter of the rice it consumes, but the specific rate per country varies from 5% in Tanzania to 54% in Rwanda. 

Rice is the second source of calories in Africa (after corn), and over a third of rice consumed on the continent is imported. Due to container shortages, the cost of shipping rice to West Africa from South East Asia tripled in the last quarter of 2020, raising the prices for end consumers. Adverse weather conditions in Vietnam and Thailand further tightened the rice supply, prompting China to import rice from India for the first time in three decades. The events of 2020 have highlighted the dependence of Africa’s food supply on its international suppliers. 

Rice Production in the Region 

The local movement restrictions and the disruptions to the global supply chain have also affected local rice production. Over 90% of Africa’s total cultivated area is exclusively rain-fed, so planting in the right period is critical to ensure that the crops get the water they need to grow. On much of the continent, planting maize and rice begins in February to April, at the peak of the lockdowns. The Covid safety measures blocked many seasonal laborers from reaching rice farms on time and prevented farmers from getting the seeds they needed, which will affect yields

For African farmers who are already struggling to adapt to the effects of climate change, and in a region where poverty and malnourishment remain high, any drop in harvest can be dangerous. Covid has exposed the need for African farmers to upgrade and modernize their production methods to better adapt to the changing and erratic climate, make their crops more resilient, and increase their harvest.

Building Business Collaborations to Enhance African Agricultural Production 

To wean itself off food imports, Africa needs to produce a lot more rice. The right investments and collaboration can increase African rice production and raise the incomes of millions of people across the region. According to the World Bank, Africa is well-positioned for a massive expansion of agricultural production. The continent has the highest reserves of untapped natural resources for food production in the world, with around 45% of the global land that is non-protected, non-forested, and with low population density. 

The land that is being cultivated is not worked efficiently. African farm systems are the least mechanized across all continents. The majority of African farmers are small-holder farmers who work the land with no tractor and no irrigation system. Mechanization and irrigation can increase land productivity, and crop monitoring solutions can allow farmers to better care for their crops during their lifecycle. 

Even though many rice-producing African countries have similar climate conditions to rice powerhouses such as Vietnam and Thailand, Africa currently produces only 4.3% of the world’s rice. The International Rice Research Institute points out that rice is a relatively young crop in Africa, which only recently became a priority crop. The potential for rice in Africa is vast, and the market is currently wide open. Enhancing rice research capacity and strengthening the rice value chain is crucial to developing a thriving African rice sector. With proper inputs, irrigation, machinery, technological solutions, and post-harvest processing and storing facilities, Africa can grow enough rice to feed its population and export the surplus globally. 

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