Senegal fights to end dominance of imported rice

STORY: Senegal's domestic rice production may have soared in recent years but at her family-run restaurant in Dakar, Amy Gueye always tries to use imported rice.

Customers, she says, prefer the taste.

"If we cook with rice from the valley, some customers may not buy it anymore because of the stones and residues that can be found within it."

Rice is the main source of calories in Senegal and has become a major staple across West Africa.

But around the continent and indeed the world, food security has been brought into sharp focus - in part by the global health crisis and war in Ukraine.

Senegal has also fallen victim to the whims of the export market.

It sourced two-thirds of its rice from India in 2021.

But last month India - fearing its own food shortages and rising inflation - curbed rice exports.

Efforts are, however, being made to reduce Senegal's dependence on rice from overseas.

That can bee seen in the country's north, where neat paddy fields form a mosaic near the town of Dagana.

There, the Japanese development agency JICA has been helping the Senegalese rice sector for over a decade.

The current phase of the project is on improving quality - less broken kernels and grit.

The project's team leader Yoshihiko Ogata says he doesn't think there is any difference in the potential for growing rice in Senegal, compared to Japan.

“I think what’s different is the attitude of farmers towards rice-growing, but I think that will change. Japanese farmers are emotionally invested in their rice crop. They put a lot of love into it, and respect."

But the effort could be worth it - not only for improving food security but also economic security.

West Africa's dependence on rice imports is a drain on foreign reserves - costing it about $3.7 billion last year according to the U.N.'s trade and development agency.

Following a global food price crisis in 2007-2008, Senegal's rice production has accelerated.

It tripled to 1.3 million metric tons between 2011 and 2020.

But consumption more than doubled over the same period, according to U.N. data, to 1.9 million metric tons.

That was driven by a growing population and an increasing preference for rice over other grains - meaning that even with significant gains in production, the rice sector looks set to remain under pressure.