Mar 25 2010

Rice is nice in Bamako

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 11:54 AM

Africans, aided by aid donors, often spend an inordinate time at conferences discussing the obvious. I usually find ways to contain my outrage over these festivals of waste, but a meeting of the so-called African Rice Congress in Bamako, Mali, makes me wish to replace my cooler head with a hotter one.

An entire week devoted to handwringing over the well-known facts around the importation of about $2 billion worth of rice into Africa annually! Surely, the rice trade, and its causes, could be thoroughly explored in a single day or two.

The highlight of the conference appears to have been the rousing exclamation by Mali’s prime minister, Modibo SidibĂ©, that Africans ought to wean themselves from imported rice in favor of local grains. “I remain convinced that the salvation of Africa will come from agriculture. Africa can and must feed itself, and export more rice,” SidibĂ© said. “This will require the adoption of policies to stop [imports].”

I agree and have written elsewhere about measured protectionist policies in Uganda and Nigeria that seem to yield positive results: more rice grown by local farmers, and less imports.

To be sure, Africa’s rising population translates into rising demand for all kinds of foods. Pressure on rice supplies is even greater because as Africans urbanize, their diets become more global and rice is the major global starch. In Africa’s largest cities demand for rice continues to rise as rural transplants gain an appetite for the grain. Production of rice by Africans is also growing, but not quickly enough, as those in attendance at Mali’s rice conference heard again and again. In short, there is no quick fix to Africa’s rice “addiction,” but neither is the outlook grim. In an important counter-trend, urban Africans are discovering various “lost crops,” to paraphrase Calestous Juma, the Kenyan scholar who has done valuable studies on the subject. Some of these are exotic indigenous grains, such as fonio, that ought to compete well with rice, especially when tied to the wider project of sustaining African pride and self-reliance.

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