Ghana’s rice revolution is underway, but will it ever be more than just a pipe dream?

Thirty-seven-year-old Beatrice Godard’s two children eat rice every day. All efforts to get them to switch, even if just once a week, to other 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 kilograms of rice per week.

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“My favorites 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.”

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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.

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Luxury of eating rice

Before the mid-90s, people went for staples such as fufu, ampesi, or kenkey, which were rather affordable and far more widely accessible.

In most homes, rice 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.

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Perhaps because Ghanaians were consuming so little of it at the time, not much rice was being imported. According to Knoema.com, a trade analysis website, Ghana imported approximately 24, 000 metric tonnes of rice in 1971.

Fifty-two years later, the average annual rate of rice imports currently stands at 12.53%. As of 2020, per data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity, 950, 000 metric tons of rice were brought into the country, valued at a total of US$391 million— US$282 million from Vietnam, US$45.5 million from Thailand, US$27.3 million from India, US$20.6 million from Pakistan, and US$5.95 million from China.

Demand for rice has, quite clearly, skyrocketed over the past decade and is now growing rapidly at 5% 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 45.0kg per annum, and this is expected to increase sharply by 2030.

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The large dependence on rice imports now heightens concerns over foreign exchange imbalances and vulnerability to international rice price shocks. At present, the 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 would require a lot of financial investment, yes, but the long-term gains would doubtless 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.

Majority of that number cultivates meager spaces of between two and five acres of land, and only about 8% of the rice-farmer population work on land between 200 and 3000 acres. A hectare of land (equivalent to roughly 2.5 acres) can produce between eight and 12 metric tonnes of rice, depending on its age, but typical Ghanaian rice farmers are only able to produce between 4.5 and 5 metric tons per the same size of land—far below the optimum, you’d agree.

These farmers, together, are able to cultivate much but get only 40% of the about 1.2 million metric tonnes they produced (400,000 metric tons). A fraction of the remainder is sold in its raw state to neighboring countries at cheaper prices. Some of it is also parboiled, 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 and is 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 tons and 987,000 metric tonnes, equivalent to 181,000 to 622,000 metric tonnes of milled rice.

“Last year, we were able to reach 950,000 metric tons,” Owusu Afriyie Akoto, the immediate past Agriculture Minister, communicated sometime in 2022.

“This year, we’re targeting 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%. And in 2025, we may pass the 105% 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 a value on its locally produced rice due to a lack of machinery, storage, and milling capacity, and so even if the production reaches two million metric tons per annum, not all of that can be milled.”

Those challenges exist regardless, and 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%.

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

The realisation of Akoto’s projected numbers, however, will not in and of itself alter the rice-savoring 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 the prices of local rice make that 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 it, and like it. Yet when you have to restock the same brand, you scarcely find it easily available. You’d 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-kilogram of imported Jasmine rice is GHC90, while the same quantity of locally-produced rice sells at GHC120. 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 GHC600 for an acre. And when it is ready for harvesting, you pay another GHC600 to rent a combine harvester to harvest the grains. If you are able to maintain your farm well an acre should give you 14 to 15 25kg bags of rice, 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 could mill, which naturally explains why that would cost much more on the market. The mills out there are simply inadequate,” he adds, echoing 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 that would guarantee a bumper crop. 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, these 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 heavily harvested, access to fertilizer is a major problem. And even when it is available, it is very expensive.

A bag of Yara fertilizer, the most popular brand on the market, sells for GHC560, and seven of those are required for an acre of rice farm, summing up to GHC3,920.

“If you multiply the GHC560 by seven bags, you can imagine, and sometimes when you harvest, the quantity will shock you because you will not get 250 kilograms of rice from the farm,” revealed Castro.

The milling industry will also need huge investment to improve. On average, a rice mill produces only three metric tons an hour and 10 hours per day, adding up to 30 metric tons 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 the 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 Ho, the capital of Ghana’s Volta Region.

“We must eat what we grow to motivate our farmers and support the 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 the government’s efforts at ensuring self-sufficiency in rice production depends largely on the level of consumption of local rice.”

The country is beginning to explore the prospect of increasing local production in a “killing two birds with one stone” scenario: reduce the importation of rice to help stabilize 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 million dollars importing rice,” he laments. “What’s more embarrassing is that a country like Ukraine exports about 74 million tons of grains, 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 to import rice while we’re endowed with arable lands, water, andfavorable weather conditions for growing crops to mitigate any possible food crisis.”

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

But there is still work to be done to drive Ghana food security in the coming years, especially since the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicts that the acute food insecurity that many countries are experiencing as a result of the Russian-Ukraine War will worsen globally in 2023.

Incentives

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

That we have the capacity to produce the same quality of rice as that 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 – taste as good as some of the imported ones; not even my three children, who are connoisseurs of sorts when it comes to rice, could tell the difference.

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

To battle the hundreds 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, there will have to be a direct government intervention to subsidise the price of rice to pose 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 the expectations of Messrs Akufo-Addo, Akoto and Ofori-Atta do not go unfulfilled.

 

 

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