Is hybrid rice solution to Africa’s food shortage?

Agriculture is viewed as the key cornerstone that drives Africa’s economies. It is a major contributor to total gross domestic product (GDP) for many countries, according to the Africa Agriculture Status Report 2018.

Over half of the African population is employed in the sector and the continent has large tracts of arable land including 60 per cent of the world's uncultivated arable land.

Every African government today is talking about food and nutrition security and employment for its people especially youth and women.

Yet, Africa is still producing too little food for its bourgeoning population to eat. Is the continent really doing everything needed to achieve its aspirations and visions in the agriculture sector?

As the population grows, it is not just food that will be needed but also services such as health and education. Jobs will be even more critical. Pressure on natural resources will also be felt. For Africa to ensure it is well prepared, it needs a thriving economy and agriculture is right at the center. In fact, Kenya’s government, for example, has singled out food and nutrition security in its Big Four Agenda, to propel the country’s development plan.

As with most development issues, it is not just a question of what needs to be done, it is how. For Africa to achieve desired growth in its agriculture sector and to create jobs for the youth and achieve food security, there is a need to put in place reforms necessary to unlock agriculture’s potential. These reforms include access to land, improvement of infrastructure, enhancement of extension services and farmer education, access to markets and finance and more critically, injection of new technologies. This means investment and commitment. It means building and committing to agricultural undertakings that will make a difference to economies. Other continents did it, why not Africa? For this to work, Africa needs to view agriculture differently – it needs to expand its view and not just focus on its contribution to food security - which is key but also really a basic expectation – but to look at agriculture holistically – as Africa’s route to economic freedom.

Food security and hunger are at a very basic level of human survival. Other continents are working towards goals that Africa can only imagine e.g use of agricultural robots and drones to monitor plant growth and the health of the crops to increase yields.  Africa’s agricultural concerns need to shift gears to go beyond hunger and food security to the sustainability of Africa as a community through growing and sustainable economies. That is what agriculture can do for Africa.

Done right, agriculture can deliver the economic goals, saving the continent billions of forex spent on food imports that could be availed to other efforts such as industrialization that would create more jobs. It will generate incomes at the individual and national levels that will improve people’s standards of living. 

The continent’s bill for importing rice only is currently estimated to stand at over $ 5 billion which is about 40 per cent of the continent’s rice requirements. Rice consumption in Africa is rising at about 8 per cent against a yield increase of less than 6 per cent per year creating a deficit of over 12 million metric tonnes. Among the 43 rice-producing countries in Africa, more than one-half are rice importers, with varying degrees ranging between 10 – 93 per cent, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Kenya, that produces a meagre 150 000 metric tonnes, consumes 600 000 metric tonnes annually. This means the importation of more than 70 per cent of rice that is consumed locally. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Nigeria’s rice import was slated to jump 13 per cent this year to 3.4 million metric tonnes, making the country Africa’s biggest rice importer. There is, therefore, an urgent need for Africa to increase its rice production otherwise the shortage is estimated to rise to more than 30 million metric tonnes by 2035.

This scenario can change. Africa can start its own agricultural revolution with low hanging fruits – embracing new agricultural technologies that can improve productivity. China, for example, that is doing a lot of business with the continent, revolutionized rice production in Asia through the use of hybrid rice technology. Currently, the share of hybrid rice in Asian markets is about 60 per cent. If Africa is going to bridge its rice deficit, then the rice hybrids offer an opportunity. For this to happen, we need to increase the land that farmers use for production to meet Africa’s rice demand and even export at competitive prices. Accordingly, this calls for the adoption of suitable technologies and best agronomic practices to revolutionize rice production in Africa to match the consumption rate while at the same time reducing the dramatic increase in total imports. This will not only boost the economies of African countries but also ensure food security among the bourgeoning Africa population and create employments.

The hybrid rice varieties offer higher yields currently giving farmers over 10 tonnes per hectare under irrigation compared to 4 tonnes that other producers are getting.  The rice, produced locally by Africa Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), Hybrid East Africa Ltd (HEAL), Kenya Agricultural Livestock and Research Organisation (KALRO), Tanzania’s Agricultural Research Institute and private seed companies in East Africa offers an opportunity to contribute to private sector growth through the involvement of seed companies. So far, five new rice hybrids have been released in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.  

For Africa to deliver on its economic goals including job creation for the youth and women and to develop a competitive agricultural sector to improve people’s standards of living, the continent needs to adopt the critical use of new technologies such as the hybrid technology to boost Africa’s rice productivity.  


The writer is the Rice Project Manager at the Africa Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF)