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A local rice revolution is underway!

…will it ever be more than just a pipe-dream?

Thirty-seven-year-old Beatrice Godard’s two children eat rice-meals every day.

All efforts to get them to switch, even if just once a week, to Ghanaian dishes not made of rice – such as banku or fufu – have proven futile.

To feed her kids, husband and niece, Beatrice is obliged to cook 5 kilogrammes of rice per week. “My favourites are the Gino and Lele brands of rice, which are all imported. They are scented and taste very nice,” Beatrice says with a grin.

Jasmine, another brand brought in from the USA, is also very nice; but I hardly go in for that due to the exchange rate – you know how the cedi has been struggling against the dollar in recent months. But my children don’t really care, so long as the rice they’re served is white and they can perceive the perfume.”

The situation in Beatrice’s family isn’t unusual. There is a growing preference for rice among Ghanaian households, especially as consumers become richer and more urbanised.

It hasn’t always been that way, though. Before the mid-90s people went for staples such as fufu, ampesi or kenkey, which were rather more affordable and far more widely accessible.

Luxury of eating rice

Rice, in most homes, was prized as a treat; served only on occasions and during festivities such as Christmas-time. Even so, only affluent families could afford the luxury of eating rice with regularity whenever the holidays came around. Perhaps because Ghanaians were consuming so little of it at the time, not much rice was being imported. In 1971, Ghana – according to Knoema.com, a trade analysis website – imported only about 24,000 tonnes of rice.

As of 2020, per data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity, 950,000 tonnes of rice was brought into the country valued at a total US$391million — US$282million from Vietnam; US$45.5million from Thailand; US$27.3million from India; US$20.6 million from Pakistan; and US$5.95million from China.

Demand for rice has, quite clearly, skyrocketed over the past decade, and is now growing rapidly at 5 percent per annum. The total rice consumption in 2020 amounted to about 1,450,000 metric tonnes, which is equivalent to per capita consumption of about 45kg per annum – and this is expected to increase sharply by 2030.

The large dependence on rice imports now heightens concerns over foreign exchange imbalances and vulnerability to international rice price-shocks. At present, government makes over one billion dollars in forex available for the importation of rice annually to meet demand; but the current weakness of Ghana’s economy has rendered such levels of spending unsustainable.

The most feasible way around it is to boost local production of the cereal; a practice that only began in the 1990s. But there are challenges throughout the value chain; from farming to milling, storage, packaging and sales. Overcoming these challenges requires a lot of financial investment, yes; but the long-term gains would doubtlessly be worth it. Areas in Ghana’s Eastern, Oti, Volta and Northern Regions have been identified and listed by experts as potential places where the cultivation of rice could flourish. Despite having all that land, though, very little of it has been cultivated by the country’s 250,000 rice farmers.

The majority of that number cultivate meagre spaces of between two – five acres of land, and only about 8 percent of the rice-farmer population work on between 200 – 3,000 acres. A hectare of land (equivalent to roughly 2.5 acres) can produce between eight – 12 metric tonnes of rice on average, but typical Ghanaian rice farmers are only able to produce between 4.5 – 5 tonnes per the same size of land; far below the optimum, you’ll agree.

These farmers, together, are able to cultivate much; but get only 40 percent of the about 1.2 million metric tonnes they produced milled (400,000 metric tonnes). A fraction of the remainder is sold in its raw state to neighbouring countries at cheaper prices. Some of it is also par-boiled, which inevitably drops the price significantly, as most Ghanaians – unlike, say Nigerians – don’t quite like their rice prepared that way. The rest goes bad, written-off as a loss altogether.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA), collected between 2008 and 2020, paddy-rice production was in the range of 302,000 metric tonnes and 987,000 metric tonnes, equivalent to 181,000 – 622,000 metric tonnes of milled rice.

“Last year, we were able to reach 950,000 metric tonnes,” Dr. Owusu Afriyie Akoto, the immediate past Agriculture Minister communicated some time in 2022. “This year we’re targetting 1.1 million, and we know that by 2023 we’ll meet the target of 1.2 million.”

Pure talk, less action

But ask Yaw Adu-Poku, Convenor of the Ghana Rice Millers Association, and he will tell you those projections are, at best, hopeful.

“As we are talking now, if I tell you that in 2025 we will be producing enough, then I am not telling you the truth,” he opines. “The structures that we need to put in place are still not there. If those structures are there, I can assure you that in 2024 we may even reach 80 percent – and in 2025 we may pass the 105 percent mark. So all of this is purely talk and little more.”

And even if by dint of good fortune Ghana does hit those targets, Mr. Adu-Poku – an expert in the milling business, still sees obstacles beyond the production stage. “Ghana cannot place value on its locally-produced rice due to lack of machinery, storage and milling capacity; and so even if production reaches two million tonnes per annum, not all of it can be milled.”

Those challenges regardless, such a bump would be very helpful as domestic production continues to fall short of demand; with the share of imported rice consumed still pegged above 50 percent.

The country’s rice self-sufficiency ratio, as revealed by Agriculture Research for Sustainable Development, declined from 38 percent in 1999 to 24 percent in 2006 – but then increased to about 43 percent in 2020.

The realisation of Dr. Akoto’s projected numbers, however, will not in and of itself alter the rice-savouring choices of many ordinary Ghanaians. “Well,” Akweley Nyangtakyi, a resident of Accra says, “my preference for imported rice will take a long time to change because of what I regard as its superior quality. That said, I do buy local rice occasionally; and if that is all the market has to offer, why not?

“I would have no choice but to teach my family to like it, though it will probably take a long time – a decade, maybe – to do that. Preference comes with pricing, too; so if prices of local rice make it easier on the pocket, I wouldn’t mind.”

Expanding on the point about availability, Nyangtakyi explains: “Sometimes you stumble upon a specific brand of local rice, cook it, eat itand like it. Yet when you have to restock the same brand, you scarcely find it easily available. You’ll have to search several markets for it – if at all you do find it”.

Cost

Then there is the other issue Nyangtakyi raises: cost.

The average price of a 5-kilogramme bag of imported Jasmine rice is GH¢90, while the same quantity of locally-produced rice sells at GH¢120. The blame for that, though, isn’t accepted by the farmers interviewed for this piece.

“At the moment, if you are going to use a tractor to prepare your land, you should not have less than GH¢600 for an acre. And when it is ready for harvesting, you pay another GH¢600 to rent a combine-harvester to harvest the grain. If you are able to maintain your farm well, an acre should give you 14 – 15 bags of rice at 25kg; but we are unable to get that,” Senyala Castro, a rice farmer in Northern Ghana, explains.

“And so I will bank all my hopes of making a decent profit on the quantity I can mill, which naturally explains why that rice would cost much more on the market. The mills out there are simply inadequate,” he adds, echoing Mr. Adu-Poku’s point with that last line (more on that subject a little later).

Says another farmer: “We are not able to recoup our investments due to the farming practices generally in use at present, and also because efforts are generally lackadaisical. To compensate for that, farmers tend to overprice rice”. And, truly, the farming practices are crude – lacking the sort of innovation and mechanisation which would guarantee bumper yields. Very few of these small-scale farmers, for instance, can afford simple harvesters, as a visit to some farms in the Volta Region revealed.

There, we found farmers using old-fashioned sickles to harvest the crop. Inevitably, some of the grains drop onto the ground; and while picking them up, the farmers unwittingly collect sand particles and gravel along with the rice… some of which end up being bagged together with the final product – just one more reason why local rice, even among enthusiasts, tends to be such a hard sell.

It is quite apparent, too, that farmers will need additional support to produce the right tonnage in order to make rice affordable on the market.

In rural northern Ghana where rice is hugely harvested, access to fertiliser is a major problem. And even when available, it is very expensive.

A bag of Yara fertiliser – the most popular brand on the market sells at GH¢560; and seven of that is required for an acre of rice farm, summing up to GH¢3,920. “If you multiply the GH¢560 by 7 bags, you can imagine; and sometimes when you harvest the quantity will shock you, that you will not get 250 kilogrammes of rice from the farm,” revealed Castro.

Milling also needs huge investment to improve. On average, a rice-mill produces only three tonnes an hour and works 10 hours per day, adding up to 30 tonnes of rice per day. That pace of work and rate of output simply cannot keep up with the appetite of Ghana’s 32 million people, many of whom live by a ‘rice or nothing’ mantra.

‘Ghana rice’ campaign

On 6 December 2019, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo – President of the Republic, launched a campaign aimed at encouraging the consumption of locally-produced rice, ‘Ghana Rice’ as it is widely known, when he addressed the 35th Farmers’ Day celebration in the capital of Ghana’s Volta Region, Ho.

“We must eat what we grow to motivate our farmers and support development of the local food industry,” the president said. “Indeed, Rebecca – my beautiful wife, our First Lady – insists that we eat local rice at home, and has made sure of it. I call on all Ghanaians to follow my example and eat local rice.”

According to Akufo-Addo, “The success of government’s efforts at ensuring self-sufficiency in rice production depends largely on the level of local rice consumption”. The country is beginning to explore the prospect of increasing local production in a ‘killing of two birds with one stone’ scenario: reduce the importation of rice to help stabilise the cedi, and ultimately make the country a rice-exporter by 2025.

That Ghana hasn’t already attained that status – by the admission of Ken Ofori-Atta, the country’s Finance Minister – is a shame. “Since 2017, we’ve spent over a billion dollars importing rice,” he laments. “What’s more embarrassing is that a country like Ukraine exports about 74 million tonnes of grain despite current conflicts, and you wonder why Ghana and Africa have fallen asleep.”

Ofori-Atta, in response, appears to be driving the local rice production agenda, considering that an agency under his watch, the Bank of Ghana, has stopped providing forex for the importation of rice. The reasoning behind that move, which he shares, is sound. “It’s actually quite criminal for the country to continue importing rice while we’re endowed with arable lands, water and favourable weather conditions for growing crops to mitigate any possible food crisis.”

Ofori-Atta is confident that the Ghana Cares Obaatan Pa programme, a key initiative of the current government, will provide the needed support for mass production of rice, and also believes that the Development Bank of Ghana – established in 2021 – will provide additional financial support to rice farmers and millers.

There is yet more to be done, though, to drive Ghana food security in the coming years; especially as the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nation is projecting that the acute food insecurity being experienced in many countries as a result of the Russian-Ukraine War will continue to escalate globally in 2023.

Incentives

Another major push government could give the rice industry is to introduce incentives that attract investors from the private sector. This could push the quantity of milled rice up from 40 percent to around 80 percent, and in turn push the price of local rice on the market below that of imported ones.

That we have the capacity to produce the same quality of rice imported from the more renowned rice-growing nations isn’t in doubt, and I know this from personal experience.

Some of the local brands I have seen on the market and bought to try at home – the likes of Nana Rice and Evivi Rice – tasted as good as some of the imported ones; not even my three children, connoisseurs of sorts, when savouring the rice could note any difference.

Developing that potential and scaling-up production will require lots of work, though; not mere lip-service or sloganeering. It will be the reward for adopting a fully multi-sectoral approach and forging strong public-private partnership.

To battle the hundreds of importers and distributors across the country – who really control the rice trade and have a vested interest in keeping the rice business the way it is, the quality of agricultural extension support services must improve. The farmers will need subsidised inputs, farming will have to become more mechanised, we’ll need bigger-capacity millers with more sophisticated machines, we’ll need more warehouses – and there will have to be direct government intervention to subsidise the price of local rice so it poses a serious challenge to imported brands.

Throw in the demonstration of commitment and sacrifice from all stakeholders – including consumers like Beatrice’s children, Akweley’s and mine – to ensure that the expectations of Messrs Akufo-Addo, Akoto and Ofori-Atta do not go unfulfilled.

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