The demand and consumption of rice in West Africa has been on a steady rise for nothing less than three to four decades. As a staple crop with considerable ease in preparation, and being the largest source of food calories in the entire continent, rice has become a mainstay in African kitchens; and with the future in view, all indication points towards an increase in demand for the crop.
With the rate of consumption, the demand in rice has always surpassed the supply, causing an inevitable dependence on importation. The antithesis is that the region houses about 3.7 million ha (56.5%) of the entire area used for rice farming in the continent. According to FAO data in 1996, Africa consumed approximately 11.6 million tons of milled rice per year; 3.3 million tons out of this was imported. ECOWAS also reported that in 2014, about 4 billion UK pounds was spent on rice importation in the region alone.
Wetlands and irrigated ecologies are widely considered to be the most suitable for rice production. The wetlands in Sub-Saharan Africa cover a total area of 2.4 million km square; approximately 24 million hectares; including coastal wetlands (165,000 km square), river flood plains (300,000 km square), inland valleys (850,000 km square) and inland basins (1.07 million km square). Also, many rivers around West Africa such as: Gambia, Niger, Benue etc. have well-developed large flood plains in their central and lower stretches that are suitable for rice production.
With the increase in the price of imported rice, the responsibility rests on the rice producing areas in West Africa to stake higher. The privatization of government-run rice commodity chain managements, provision of quality seeds, irrigation systems, prospective value-addition and advancement of more effective farming techniques, are among other reasons why the prospect of a self-sufficient rice region and continent seems feasible in years to come.
The regional offensive for sustainable and sustained recovery of rice production in West Africa Program was consented by the ECOWAS Council of Ministers in June 2014; the target of the program is to reduce imports to the barest minimum by 2025. Rice Breeding by Africa Rice +Korea in 2016 aimed at the generation of stress tolerant rice varieties to meet needs for African farmers and competitive African Rice Initiative (CARD) aims at building the economic capacities of the stakeholders in the rice farming industry. These are among other initiatives in place for the region to achieve less importation and more exportation by 2025.
The proof of the rice pudding is in the eating, but the process should begin from the region’s arable lands and not with cargoes floating above sea. Two constants remain within discourse, West African farmers need to farm more rice and they need the support of the public and private sectors to be self-sufficient in the ‘not too distant’ future.