- The creation of the Coalition for African Rice Development (CARD) has been one of the fruits of the fourth Tokyo International Conference for African Development (TICAD) held in the Japanese city of Yokohama. The project's principal goal is to double the continent's rice harvest within the next decade.
Led by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), other supporting partners of the project include the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
CARD wants to "provide a variety of measures to increase rice production in the continent," and its efforts include getting high-yielding varieties of rice to smallholder farmers, improving soils, supporting investments in new agricultural research and rural infrastructure.
It also aims to drastically reduce Africa's reliance on expensive rice imports through the development and distribution of the new resilient rice varieties for the continent's smallholder farmers.
"Rice represents Africa's best opportunity for reduction of food imports,'' said Dr. Namanga Ngongi, AGRA's President, at the Yokohama conference.
"The price of rice and other grains in the international markets will stay at high levels for the foreseeable future. Innovative plans are called for that will contribute to improving Africa's self-sufficiency in staple food grains, including rice. This new initiative will go a long way towards helping achieve this goal."
As rice is the main staple food in Asia, the Senior Vice President of JICA believed there is considerate room for Asia-Africa solidarity and partnership "so that we can share our experiences and deliver the best possible outcomes for Africa's small-holder farms," although there are differences in geography, climate, and socio-economy.
Better still, Mr. Kenzo Oshima said Africa can tap the centuries of experience and knowledge of Asian countries on rice cultivation.
"Asia achieved a green revolution in the 1960s -1980s, and rice lay at the core of this great transformation. Given the importance of rice as an African food staple and the recent success stories of NERICAs in countries like Uganda, we believe that rice will also play a key role in bringing a green revolution to Africa."
The demand for rice in sub-Saharan Africa is double the rate of population growth and consumption is growing faster than that of any other major staple food. During 2001 to 2005, rice consumption grew in sub-Saharan Africa by 5.84% and between the same period the average per capita rice consumption was 18 kg per year, according to a recent report by the Africa Rice Center in Cotonou, Benin.
Across Africa, local production has been unable to keep up with increases in demand, despite a huge increase in production in the past 50 years, from 3.14 milion tons to 14.60 tons.
Over the same period, rice production has increased on a much greater scale from 570 million tons to 200 million tons. Compared to Asia, Africa's increased production has required a massive expansion in cultivated land, raising concerns for rice production's environmental impact.
There has been concerns over the sub-Saharan Africa's poor self-reliance ratio, especially when demand for rice continues to high.
According to the Africa Rice Center, the sufficiency ratio declined steadily over a 45-year period from 112% in 1961 to 61% in 2006, when the continent relied on the international rice market to satisfy about 39% of its rice consumption needs.
"Today, less than half of rice consumed in sub-Saharan Africa is supplied locally,'' said Dr. Namanga Ngongi, President of AGRA.
"In Uganda, 50% of rice is imported, which amounts to US $60 million annually. Kenya imports nearly 86% and recent outbreak of rice blast has destroyed more than 5,000 acres of the crop under cultivation in Kenya's main rice growing area. This is a major problem."
Rice Blast is a fungal disease that has had devastating effects in several rice growing regions, most recently in Kenya, where rice farmers are counting their losses after this season's crop was attacked. Some have lost up to half of this season's crop.
The new initiative hopes to build on successful programs in countries like Uganda and Nigeria whose governments have cut rice imports in half over a few short years through investments in high yielding NERICA rice varieties that require little or no irrigation and are capable of growing in upland and lowland environments.
The program will also invest in new post-harvest technologies to improve processing and infrastructure, including much-needed irrigation systems, and market information for grain traders. The initiative also hopes to begin introducing renewable energies such as solar and micro-hydropower in farmer communities that lack reliable energy sources needed to process the rice.
"We would like to thank JICA for their leadership, and we thank our other partners, including NEPAD, the World Bank, the Africa Rice Center and FARA for joining forces to help bring about a green revolution in Africa," said Dr. Namanga Ngongi.
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