TZ@60: Why rice is likely to become the white gold of the future

What you need to know:

Tanzania was among the top 20 rice producers in the world in the year 2020/2021, according to the United States Department of Agriculture

Dar es Salaam. When foreign exchange reserves reached an all-time high of $6.7 billion in the year ending September 2021 rice exports were cited among some of factors contributing to the milestone. Exports of rice jumped from $97.4 in the year ending September 2020 to $303.4 in the year ending September 2021, according to the Monthly Economic Review for October 2021 prepared and released by the Bank of Tanzania (BoT).

The sharp rise in export value of rice led to the significant upsurge of the export value of non-traditional exports that is composed mainly of cereals, oilseeds, cocoa, raw hides/skins and woods from $757.8 million in the year ending September 2020 to $1.356 billion in the year ending September 2021.

The BoT did not give reasons for the sudden, high jump of the value of rice exports but factors on the ground indicate the growing importance of rice in bringing in the coveted foreign exchange to Tanzania. The BoT data should inform policy makers, farmers and all other stakeholders on the high potential of rice as a strategic crop in the country.

Tanzania was among the top 20 rice producers in the world in the year 2020/2021, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). That same year the country was Africa’s fourth largest producer after Nigeria, Egypt and Madagascar.

There is an understanding that increased production in rice would not only help Tanzania solve its food supply issues but also diversify its exports basket. Unlike maize, rice is the staple and can easily be turned into a staple of billions of people worldwide. Rice is also relatively less affected by storage pests as compared to other cereal grains such as maize, sorghum, millet and wheat. The USDA, which closely watches African food production and consumption trends, says in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) rice has transitioned from luxury and holiday food to a major staple food and growing source of calories, due to growing economies, increasing urbanisation, rising household incomes, improvements in infrastructure, and greater market access.

This means rice demand in SSA is going to push imports to 15.4 million tonnes by 2026. Whichever one looks at it, this is the ready market for Tanzania’s rice, if production is boosted in the next four years, taking into consideration the fact that Tanzania has ratified and is set to enjoy the benefits of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area. Malawi, Zambia, DRC Congo and Kenye have been traditional markets for Tanzania’s rice, but now Africa is going to be the ready market waiting for the products.

In Tanzania, rice is the second most important food and commercial crop after maize but there is a possibility of rice becoming the crop number in Tanzania given the country’s farming conditions and the availability of ample agricultural basins.

About 21 million hectares are suitable for rice cultivation in Tanzania, but only about 1.1 million hectares were cultivated in the 2017/18 season according to available data from FAOSTAT. About 71 per cent of rice cultivation in Tanzania takes place under rain fed lowland, 20 per cent is cultivated upland. About 9 per cent of rice cultivation takes place under irrigated conditions, according to the International Rice Research Centre. Rice production can be turned around if the irrigated rice cultivation composes half of the total rice cultivated in the country, which is quite possible.

Tanzania has various strategies and programmes in place to boost rice production in Tanzania. Tanzania’s 10 year National Rice Development Strategy first phase (NRDS I), endorsed by the government in 2008, aims at transforming smallholding rice cultivation into a commercially viable production system in order to attain national self-sufficiency. The second phase (NRDS II) was launched in December 2019 and will be implemented for 10 years.

Tabling the budget for the financial year 2021/2022 the minister for Agriculture Dr Adolph Mkenda detailed the government’s plans to boost rice production by 75 per cent to 100 per cent, progressively. He said the plan this financial year (2021/2022) is to establish 28 irrigation schemes. Farmers in those schemes will be facilitated with fertilisers, high yield seeds, extension services, access to mechanisation, education as regards to better land and water uses. “We also expect the Rufiji Basin Development Authority (Rubada) to increase its production in collaboration with the private sector and the Regional Rice Centre of Excellence (RRCE) based in Ifakara,” said Dr Mkenda. RRCE is currently developing high yields of upland rice. According to the ministry of Agriculture rice production in the 2020/21 season and food availability 2021/22 shows that Tanzania rice production is 2,579,535 tonnes. With the demand of 1,091,778 tonnes the country is expected to have a surplus of 1,537,741 metric tonnes with the self-sufficiency ratio for rice being 241 per cent, the highest for any cereals. Tanzania has reached rice production surplus by cultivating only about 4 per cent of the arable land suitable for rice production. What will happen when 50 per cent of the land is cultivated? The increase in production is also associated with the increase in yield. In 2018/19 Tanzania produced 2,009,174 metric tonnes of rice while the requirement was 999,543 tonnes. The country, then, achieved a surplus of 1,009,631 tonnes. In the 2019/20 farming season production of rice reached a peak of 3,038,080 tonnes against demands of 1,094,119. The country had a cool surplus of 1,943,961 tonnes, according to the budget speech of Dr Mkenda. Rice production hit the one million metric tonnes mark for the first time in the 2010/11 season, definitely after concerted efforts as part of the implementation of the NRDS I, and has been increasing since then. It reached the two million mark in the 2015/16 season. Tanzania used to be a net rice importer. Information from the ministry of Agriculture shows that the country spent an average of $26 million annually to import rice between 2001 and 2005.

To realise its full potential in rice production Tanzania will have to overcome several challenges. Firstly, Tanzania will have to mechanise rice farming. Rice farming is among the least mechanised in the country because it is dominated by smallholding. Mechanisation will have the immediate effect of increasing acreage, experts say.

Processing of rice should also improve, with the introduction of better technology. The quality of milled rice is sometimes low and fetches lower prices in the world market.