While 90% of rice is grown, milled, and consumed in Asia, it is increasingly the staple food of choice for rural and urban households across Africa. When global prices tripled in 2008, riots erupted from India to the West Indies. The World Bank estimated that a 100 million people fell back into poverty given rice's key position in total household budget expenditures.
Farmers in West Africa produce approximately 8 million metric tons of milled rice and import over 7 million metric tons per year. Relying on Asian growers to feed families in rapidly growing cities like Dakar, Bamako, and Abidjan is unsustainable and risky. It saps precious foreign currency reserves and sharp price shocks due to natural disasters or changes in government policies can disrupt global rice stocks significantly. In fact, only 6% of all the rice produced in the world is traded internationally.
Milled Rice Production and Imports in West Africa
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, West Africa has an average yield rate of 1.44 metric tons of milled rice per hectare compared to the global average of 3 tons per hectare. In comparison, the global average of 3 tons, and countries like Egypt and the United States have yields of over 5 tons per hectare.
While reasons such as geography, climate, seed quality, water availability/management, disease control, and proper harvesting techniques) affect yields, post-harvest activities such as threshing, storing, milling, and distribution are just as crucial. Farmers are caught in a vicious circle. The lack of proper storage facilities, efficient milling machines, packaging material, and effective marketing and distribution strategies leads to lost revenue and low incomes. Lost revenue and low incomes means that farmers cannot invest in post-harvest systems that would ensure that waste is minimized and quality is maximized.
In Mali for example, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that there are very few large scale organizations that provide post-harvest services to farmers. Most of the large mills were built during the Cold War-era and are abandoned today. In l'Office du Niger—Mali's biggest rice producing zone, there are only 11 mini-rice mills so the bulk of the rice is milled by hundreds of donkey-pulled diesel-powered mobile hullers.
Once harvested and threshed, paddy rice (unmilled rice) needs to be dried and stored properly to minimize exposure to moisture and insects. When the kernels are too dry, the grains shatter during milling. When the kernels are too moist, it spoils. Poor storage increases the risks of the rice being contaminated with aflatoxin, a deadly and invisible poison caused by the fungus Aspergillus flavus.
80% of rice grown in Mali, is milled using inefficient, diesel-powered mobile hullers. They have a average yield rate of just 55%, are loud, polluting, and the physical quality of the rice that emerges is poor. The yield rate is also determined by the moisture content (ideally 14%) and the rice variety so it is essential that the rice is dried, stored, and handled properly as soon as it is harvested.
Farmers struggle to find buyers willing to pay fair prices during the harvesting period. Some farmers choose sit on their harvests until prices rise 5-6 months after harvest but such a strategy is risky. The opportunity cost is also high because the revenues, they are unable cover household expenses, plant a second rice harvest, or grow high-value fruits and vegetables in the counter season.