Urbanization Drives Rice Consumption in Africa.
While rice has traditionally been a staple food in Asian countries, recent trends reveal a significant increase in its consumption in Africa. AfricaRice, a rice research and development organization in Africa, reports that the demand for rice in Africa is growing at a rate of more than 6% per year, which is faster than the demand for any other food staple in sub-Saharan Africa.With only 17% of the world’s population, Africa accounts for 32% of global rice imports, making it a significant participant in the international rice trade.
Additionally, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) predicts that African rice consumption could reach 34.9 million tonnes of milled rice by 2025. Moreover, data from FAO further indicates that while the global top 9 rice consumers consist of Asian countries exclusively, the global top 20 includes 8 African countries. These countries are located in two major regions on the continent: Western Africa and the islands off the East African coast. Interestingly, however, rice consumption is below 25 kg per capita per year for the vast majority of the continent.
West Africa leads in rice consumption
In Western Africa, which has one of the highest per capita rice consumption rates worldwide, people consume between 50 kg and over 100 kg of rice per capita every year.In the region, Guinea is the largest per capita consumer of rice and ranks 10th globally, consuming 151 kg.Sierra Leone (148.5 kg), Guinea-Bissau (136.9 kg), Ivory Coast (121.1 kg), Liberia (116.5 kg), and Senegal (115.3 kg) all consume significant quantities of rice and are ranked among the top 20 countries globally in terms of rice consumption.
These high consumption rates are only observed in a few other nations off the East African coast, namely Mauritius (54.3 kg), Comoros (117.7 kg), and Madagascar (148.8 kg). These countries also consume a large amount of rice every year.
In these regions and throughout the rest of the continent, there are several interesting trends that have been driving the demand and consumption of rice, particularly in the past few decades. They include population growth, urbanization, changing dietary habits, and increased availability of rice. Statisticians report that the African population has been growing at an average rate of over 2.45% per year for the past 23 years.
Moreover, the African Development Bank reveals that the urban share of Africa’s population has doubled from 19% to 39% over the last 50 years, resulting in more than 360 million new city dwellers. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development further predicts that Africa will be home to more than 950 million urban residents by 2050. Naturally, the changing dynamics of cities on the continent have profound effects on the food that people consume across Africa. Import dependency persists as demand increases
Although rice has been cultivated for more than 3000 years in parts of Africa, the current production levels barely meet the continent’s consumption needs. If the current trends continue as predicted by the FAO, African rice production will only be able to meet two-thirds of its demand for rice. This means that more than 12 million tonnes of rice will need to be imported each year, resulting in an annual cost of over US$5 billion by 2050.
Currently, the African continent imports a significant portion of its rice from countries such as Thailand, India, Vietnam, and China. This type of reliance on imports puts African countries at a disadvantage as it leaves their food security in the hands of other nations.For example, the Indian government recently banned the export of non-basmati white rice in order to control the increasing prices and enhance local availability ahead of the upcoming El Niño weather phenomenon.
A lot of African countries, especially in West Africa, depend on India as their main source of rice, and this move by the government of India sets them a step back when it comes to meeting their demand for rice. The ban imposed by India has already caused global supply chain concerns and put approximately US$1 billion worth of rice contracts in India at risk.
Localization promises to reduce overreliance on imports
While it is true that Africa depends on imports to fulfill more than two-thirds of its demand for rice, different governments have put various measures in place to promote local production of rice. For example, Nigeria, currently the largest rice producer in Africa and one of the largest importers, has implemented various policies and initiatives to support rice farmers and improve local rice production.
In 2021, rice production in Nigeria amounted to around 8.3 million metric tons, making the country the leading rice producer in Africa. While its production fell to 5.4 million metric tonnes in 2022, it still accounts for approximately 46% of the harvest in West Africa.
Egypt and Madagascar are also large producers, and in 2021, they followed Nigeria with an output of about 4.8 million and 4.4 million metric tons of rice, respectively, according to data from Statista. The government of Egypt has rice breeding programs to develop early-maturing and high-yielding varieties, leading to increased water use efficiency, high crop intensification rates, and saving about 30 percent of the irrigation water consumed every year.
However, the government has been regulating and restricting rice cultivation outside of designated areas. Rice, being a water-intensive crop, requires irrigation, and its illegal cultivation negatively impacts the ability of the canal networks to provide the necessary water required by all beneficiaries in the summer.
Therefore, according to Egypt’s new law, instituted in 2021, farmers who do not adhere to the designated areas for rice cultivation face either fines ranging between EGP 3000 – 10,000 (US$192 – US$640.20) per feddan (4,200 sqm) or a prison sentence of up to six months. While this is bound to reduce rice production to a certain extent, it is the government’s effort to ensure sustainability in production and protect water resources.
Tanzania strives to be the largest producer in the continent
In East Africa, Tanzania has made significant investments in rice production and aims to become one of the leading rice producers on the continent. Tanzania benefits from favorable agroecological conditions for both small-scale and large-scale rice farming. In the last few years, there have been significant market prospects for smallholder farmers in Tanzania.
This has led to national self-sufficiency and a substantial surplus for export, making rice one of the country’s most important cash crops. Therefore, while the rest of the East African Community (EAC) imports a substantial amount of rice, Tanzania produces enough for domestic consumption and a significant surplus for export, with only a small quantity of rice imported to meet specific consumer demands. According to the Ministry of Agriculture in Tanzania, rice production increased to over three million metric tonnes in 2021, enabling the mainland to export 441,908 metric tonnes of rice.
The country, currently the fourth largest producer, now aims for the top spot. It aims to claim the number one position by implementing the 2019-2030 National Rice Development Strategy Phase II (NRDS-II). According to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Tanzania’s National Rice Development Strategy (NRDS) aims to gradually transform the existing subsistence-dominated rice sub-sector into a commercially viable production system. It aims at sustaining national self-sufficiency while contributing to regional self-sufficiency and becoming a regional market leader. Phase two of the government’s NRDS 2019-2030 is now complete paving the way for phase three which aims to boost production to at least 8.8 million tonnes by 2030.
Additionally, another project, the Climate Smart African Rice Project, was launched in 2020. This project aims to develop new rice varieties that are better suited to the changing climate conditions in Africa.It is a collaboration between the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA), the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), and the Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute (TARI).
The researchers leading the project are utilizing advanced breeding techniques to develop rice varieties that are more resistant to drought, flooding, salinity, pests, and diseases. The new varieties are expected to help farmers increase their yields and income while reducing their vulnerability to climate-related risks. The initiative is part of a broader effort to promote sustainable agriculture and enhance resilience to climate change in Africa.
In 2021, rice production in nigeria amounted to around 8.3 million metric tons, making the country the leading producer in africa. Egypt and Madagascar follow with an output of 4.8 million and 4.4 million respectively.
Climate Smart African Rice Project
The Climate Smart African Rice Project is being pursued regionally to address some of the challenges affecting rice production in the continent.Salinity is one of the challenges that affect countries such as Mali, Ethiopia, and Burundi.It arises from the accumulation of salt due to the excessive utilization of irrigation water without proper drainage, along with the utilization of low-quality irrigation water or sodic soils formed from rocks containing salt.
The second major issue is submergence, which affects up to one-third of the rainfed lowland areas in Sub-Saharan Africa.According to IRRI, modern rice varieties are not adapted to these conditions, and farmers in the subregion experience either regular yield loss when they cultivate these varieties or low yield when they persist in growing local landraces.
Thirdly, low germination under anaerobic conditions poses a challenge. Most modern rice varieties either fail to germinate underwater or fail to elongate the coleoptile and develop roots and shoots for further growth under prolonged oxygen deprivation, leading to partial or complete crop failure. Thus, the development of varieties capable of tolerating flooding during anaerobic germination is critical in both rainfed and irrigated ecosystems.
The solution of the Climate Smart African Rice Project lies in identifying novel genes that are involved in flood or salinity tolerance of rice. This will be done by using African rice germplasm, such as Oryza glaberrima, and wild relatives to enhance their expression.
According to the project, the knowledge gaps that need to be addressed in order to achieve the overall objective are the understanding of the role of the root barrier in preventing the intrusion of soil phytotoxins and salt through radial O2 loss (ROL), as well as the prevalence of the trait of anaerobic germination. The scientists on the team propose using promising genotypes of wild relatives from wetland habitats to uncover these trait capacities.
Regional blocs ramp up rice production in the continent
While individual countries are working on ways to improve rice production within their borders, regional trade blocs have a role to play. One of the most productive initiatives for rice production is the Coalition for African Rice Development (CARD). It was formed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in partnership with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) during the Fourth Tokyo International Conference on African Development in May 2008.
CARD aimed to double African rice production by 2018 and initiated National Rice Development Strategies (NRDS) in 12 countries, including Tanzania, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Guinea, Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, and Madagascar. CARD then proceeded to initiate a second phase in 2019, which is expected to run until 2030. In this second phase, CARD partnered with the World Food Programme (WFP) and included nine additional countries in the initiative: Angola, Burundi, Chad, Congo Republic, Gabon, Guinea Bissau, Malawi, Niger, and Sudan.
CARD’s projects focus on training smallholder farmers, providing inputs such as seeds and fertilizers, promoting mechanization, managing water resources, facilitating access to credit and markets, and enhancing quality standards. The implementation of these projects is supported by various development partners including the Food and Agriculture Organization, Africa Development Bank (AfDB), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and AfricaRice, among others.
Opportunities to overcome pressing challenges in African rice production
Despite the progress made by various countries, African rice production still faces challenges such as limited access to irrigation, inadequate infrastructure, low mechanization, pests and diseases, and the impacts of climate change. Moreover, challenges such as the affordability, accessibility, and quality control of rice remain. However, efforts are being made to address these challenges and improve rice production throughout the continent. Investing in infrastructure, improving domestic rice production, enhancing post-harvest management, and promoting value addition in the rice value chain are some of the opportunities to meet the increasing demand for rice in Africa.
Researchers suggest that the utilization of wastewater in Africa could solve one of the most formidable challenges: access to irrigation water. The United Nations World Water Development Report by the UN World Water Assessment Programme of UNESCO argues that once treated, wastewater could prove invaluable in meeting the growing demand for freshwater. According to this report, a large proportion of wastewater is released into the environment without being treated, especially in low-income countries, which, on average, only treat 8 % of domestic and industrial wastewater, compared to 70% in high-income countries.
Israel recycles nearly 90% of its wastewater and uses most of it for irrigation, while Europe recycles 60% of its wastewater. Most African countries are, however, yet to tap into the benefits of wastewater treatment for reuse, especially for agriculture. Herein lies an opportunity to create a solution that solves two problems at a go; treating wastewater and availing the much-needed irrigation water for rice production. It is an especially timely solution in the face of drought and consistently dwindling water resources due to climate change.
Secondly, research and experience have proven that mechanization significantly improves the productivity of rice. According to, Rice Green Revolution in Sub-Saharan Africa a 2023-published book by Keijiro Otsuka, Yukichi Mano, and Kazushi Takahashi, mechanization demand remains low in SSA partly due to farmers’ inadequate knowledge of improved cultivation practices. According to the authors, demand for mechanization is inspired by factors such as farming intensification due to population pressure on land and high rice prices as well as farm wage increases due to urbanization and economic growth, prompting farmers to substitute labor with machinery.
However, the machinery utilization rate remains low in SSA because there are fewer production seasons because of the dominance of rainfed agriculture. Additionally, poor road infrastructure in the continent also prevents service providers from reaching break-even utilization rates through extensive migratory services.
Moreover, inadequate and unstable paddy production also hinders investments in modern rice mills, which often need sufficient utilization rates to be profitable. Therefore, shifting from rainfed agriculture and providing the necessary road infrastructure is bound to encourage mechanization in rice production and reduce overreliance on exports. Governments, in collaboration with programs such as CARD, could promote the adoption of technology in production by establishing the necessary infrastructure to ensure its effective utilization.
Another way of increasing the production of rice in Africa is by using modern rice varieties. For example, as mentioned before, the Climate Smart African Rice Project in Tanzania is currently working on identifying novel genes that are involved in flood or salinity tolerance of rice. They are using African rice germplasm, such as Oryza glaberrima, for this purpose. Additionally, according to AfricaRice, there are new varieties of rice that can withstand harsh environmental conditions, mature faster, allowing for more harvest seasons, and are tolerant to pests and diseases. For example, the New Rice for Africa (NERICA) varieties are the first wide-scale success of crossing the two cultivated species: Oryza sativa, known as ‘Asian rice’, and O. glaberrima, often called ‘African rice’. Other new rice varieties developed to enhance rice production in Africa include Advanced Rice Varieties for Africa (ARICA), Sahel, STRASA, Orylux, WITAs, and WABs varieties, each developed to do well in certain areas and under different environmental conditions.
Additionally, African rice producers are learning and taking steps to reduce post-harvest losses of rice. One of the ways that these farmers are doing so is by rice parboiling, a process that involves partial boiling of rice in the husk before milling to protect the rice from breaking during milling, preserve nutrition and enhance quality.
According to AfricaRice researchers, if properly carried out, rice parboiling significantly improves the physical, eating, and nutritional quality of the milled rice compared to non-parboiled rice. According to these researchers, the GEM (Grain quality enhancer, Energy-efficient, and durable Material) improved rice parboiling technology produces quality rice, processes large quantities of rice relatively quickly, is energy efficient, and is safer to operate than traditional methods.
Moreover, the utilization of broken rice fractions and rice husk is another way of reducing postharvest losses of rice. The broken rice fractions can be utilized to make rice flour that can make porridge and ready-to-eat (RTE) high-protein extruded snacks. On the other hand, rice bran can be combined with legumes to create animal feed. The husks, on the other hand, are used for energy through a gasification process. This process converts biomass into a combustible gas by reacting oxygen in the air with carbon present in the biomass during combustion.
Rice consumption in Africa has been increasing in recent years, due to changing dietary preferences and urbanization. Researchers indicate that this trend will continue as the African population, especially in cities, increases. However, most of the rice consumed in Africa is imported, which becomes a burden for the continent if production does not increase significantly in the near future. In response to this trend, many African countries are investing in rice production. They are training farmers, introducing new varieties, and providing technologies to enhance production, especially through programs like CARD. Since rice consumption will only increase in the future, it only makes sense that Africa continues to invest in the production of this cereal which is now a staple in the continent.