A Rice-based Green Revolution in Africa?


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Whether African can achieve a Green Revolution has been a perennial question. 

Everyone is looking for a trigger that will usher in the combination of high yielding crop varieties, fertilizers, and irrigation water that fuelled the Green Revolution in Asia.  Since the major increases in Asia's food production occurred in irrigated areas, large-scale irrigation schemes have become attractive.  A recent paper investigates the potential of and constraints to a rice Green Revolution in Africa's large-scale irrigation schemes, using data from Uganda, Mozambique, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Senegal.

The paper has three important messages. 

First, Africa would benefit from Asian rice varieties, which perform well under irrigated conditions that currently exist in Africa. 

Second, full benefits from irrigation would depend on the supporting inputs, institutions and infrastructure, including quality seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, management know-how, information and financial services and, most importantly, a stable supply of irrigation water. 

Third, Africa needs a big push in developing both large and small-scale irrigation systems.  Although small-scale irrigation development seems to be the current trend among aid organizations, the paper shows that large-scale irrigation schemes also have high potential under proper management.

The paper leaves us thinking about many more issues.  How do we find the right Asian rice variety for this geographically diverse continent?  What is the potential for ground water irrigation which is a major source of irrigation water in other rice producing countries?  Will increasing irrigation pave the way for the expansion of other crops and facilitate commercialization of agriculture?  Will irrigation improve food security and foster a sustained rural development in Africa?  Recent increases in food prices have only increased the stakes.


Shiva Makki

Senior Economist, World Bank

Join the Conversation

February 16, 2011

Great Post Shiva...
You raise a valid point of 'geographically diverse continent'. It's long proven that trickle down approach don't work, but investing in agriculture is key to rural development. Regarding, implementing the techniques used in Asia - how far will that be sustainable?

olugbenga adesanya
February 16, 2011

Africa is in need of food security and agro based industrialization. I agree with the cultivation of food and cash crops on mega scales. Rice and other crops could be Africa's restoration avenues. Feed the people to develop a healthy workforce. Subsidies should be at the farm gate for higher productivity and wealth creation.

February 17, 2011

The idea is a great one Shiva... but the hurdles to its achievement are more. I have a strong belief that we should first address the problems likely to be encountered as we work towards Africa's Green Revolution and how to solve them as the idea is a noble one! Are our political leaders who have politicized every thing including the lives of their own citizens ready to set apart themselves from their personal interests and work towards the interests of Africa?

Ina & Esu
February 17, 2011

Some of the best rice I have ever eaten was the indigenous rice of the Gour'mache people in eastern Burkina Faso. They have a long tradition of growing their traditional rice however now the local population can't afford it because white rice, imported from China, is much cheaper. How can rice grown in China and imported all the way to Burkina Faso be cheaper than the rice grown indigenously there on African soil? It's not... it's just that the true cost is not self-evident. Not only is the white rice from China far inferior in nutritional value than the nutrient-rich brown rice of the Gour'mache, when you weigh in the cost to the environment for the transportation, the use of fossil fuel, the effect on the atmosphere and other hidden costs, one is able to see that it is astronomically higher. Is the goal here creating new markets for China's booming economy, or empowering smallholder farmers to break free of poverty?
Also, since a country like Burkina consists of 90% subsistence farmers, and 64% of the entire population lives on less than $1/day, how do irrigation systems get deployed to the poorest of the poor, who make up the majority? Irrigation is what they need no doubt, so they can first grow enough food for their families, and then to have a surplus and increased variety to bring to market, but the real question is how do we serve this very poor constituency with large and small scale irrigation schemes? This is a people that has no concept of credit, that is almost entirely illiterate, that has no savings, and is even skeptical of technology and westerners (for good reason).
Lastly, the assumption that chemical fertilizers created by for-profit agro-businesses are to be used without question is contradictory to our understanding and vision of a Green Revolution. What kind of green are you referring to-- money or Gaia? Chemical fertilizers and even GMO crops are being touted as key to Africa's success. Is Africa truly better off with dependence on external agricultural inputs or could we possibly work together to find an African solution for Africa? Again, what is the result here- to get Africa hooked on fertilizer made in the US and Europe- a system designed to further benefit the richest 1%, or to create sustainable empowerment and autonomy of smallholder farmers? We need to re-think everything and question existing assumptions about how we do things and systems that are in place which may be causing more harm than good.

olugbenga adesanya
February 26, 2011

We should adopt the most sustainable production process in ensuring food security in Africa.

Jeff Barnews
February 28, 2011

I am surprised none of the posts above raised the issue of land tenure. Large scale irrigation schemes in Mali are dominated by the government and access to fertile perimeters is open to corruption. Individuals have little incentive to invest in canal maintenance, desalinization or soil fertility. Productive farmers who would like to buy more land to increase scale cannot because of restrictions on land and control of land by the government. Until government facilitates transparent buying and selling of agricultural land, large scale schemes will fail.

February 23, 2011

The idea that large-scale systems may be the way to go is misguided. In some of the most successful rice growing East Asian economies including Japan, Taiwan and Indonesia, small-scale irrigation systems have dominated agricultural development because of the attendant dominance of small-scale production systems. In Nigeria, large-scale irrigation systems from the 1970s were a huge failure for a variety of reasons including low maintenance and the fact that most rice producers are small-scale and could not utilise this infrastructure. In my research I have reflected on FAO's report in 2005 of very low efficiency of large-scale irrigation in relation to the small-scale Fadama system. There is also the ongoing development of African high yielding rice varieties already. Notably there is the NERICA variety that was developed by the West African Rice Development Agency. It is best to acknowledge the efforts being made and support their progress. We must appreciate that Asian rice varieties will not necessarily do well for a variety of reasons.

Al Goozner
February 23, 2011

I like the comment re: local varieties. These are the ones to be developed and cultured and irrigation. The choice of crops to irrigate should also be to local needs and desires with local farmers making the decisions rather than an Ex-pat expert from Asia.

I've seen a cow pasture turned into one of the largest horticultural specialty farms in Zambia. They are exporting green maze and cherry tomatoes into Europe providing local employment for these labor intensive crops and foreign exchange earnings to buy machinery, fertilizer and pesticide to grow more food crops.

The food crop of choice in East Africa is Maze not rice. The transport and storage of these crops is more important than irrigation. For a land locked country that needs to raise foreign exchange, the best export crop to grow would be tobacco.

When will the World Bank Support the development of tobacco production? LOL.

Making bad choices for poor countries is just not the way to go. Africa is the largest populated Continent in the world. Speaking in generalities should be avoided. One size does not fit all.

olugbenga adesanya
March 02, 2011

I agree with you. The entire land management deserve focus.

Yasmine Bandali
February 24, 2011

Stemming from Ina & Esu's comment, it does appear tht the Chinese influence in Africa appears to be driving out more local industries than just rice.

Recently an Ethiopian friend of mine mentioned that some local soap making industries in Ethiopia were forced to shut down, since imported Chinese soap was cheaper.

Given also that certain Chinese products have different safety standards, whether it be for rice or soap, or any other product, this pose health and social problems down the line as Africans continue to import cheaper goods.

So part of the issue here is to bring about an economic mechanism that will encourage Africans to buy local.

olugbenga adesanya
February 25, 2011

Protectionism hinders economic growth. African nations should industrialize according to global standards. Say no to sub standard products.

olugbenga adesanya
February 25, 2011

Small is beautiful but a mix of small farm holdings and mega farming ensures food security.

olugbenga adesanya
February 21, 2011

Dear Ina & Esu,
What matters is food security and ability to feed Africans without imports.

Jerome Bossuet
March 04, 2011

Following on from INA & ESU's comments;
I agree that African Green Revolution must recognize the needs of the smallholder farmers. Regarding inputs such as fertilizer, we must look at ways to adapt these to the reality of subsistence farmers such as microdosing technology. ICRISAT (the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics) works in Sub Saharan Africa and is applying this technology with proven positive impacts on many smallholder farmers. To know more please have a look at this photo essay on BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-10698153 and this opinion piece from William Dar, Director General, ICRISAT on http://blog.icrisat.org/archives/104

olugbenga adesanya
February 22, 2011

Let the banana tree provide cover for and nurture the cocoa tree. A good mix of mega and subsistence farming would serve Africa and her citizens. My position is to emulate China in food sufficiency and export the excess.

February 25, 2011

Has anyone considered that rice paddies--which create fields of standing water--would attract mosquitoes and increase malaria in Africa? Why are crops that are indigenous to Africa, such as sorghum, millet, peanuts and yams, not cultivated in a climate that is naturally suited to them? This would require much less water than rice. Isn't working with nature what "Green" means?

Eric B
February 21, 2011

Ina & Esu. your artilce is very effective at highlighting some of the dilemmas facing African agriculture.
Among the problems, land reforms, managerial skills and capital formation continue to plagues African enterprise. Only an Afrocentric solution devised and implemented with foreign advise will allleviate these chronic problems.
In graduate school we were thought the concepts of systems thinking, but most Africans are subsistence farmers who cannot understand the concepts of systems implementation for the good of all. During the industrial revolution in the West, most of the systems were developed and implemented by the industrialists of the day at a very high cost to society and the environment. But through trial and error the west has overcome these challenges by environmental oversight and strict labor laws.
What Africa needs is the regulatory framework to encourage the likes of Henry Ford to assemble the factors of production in a scale to solve the supply problem. Sadly political instability in Africa and the influence of foreign powers may not allow this to happpen anytime soon. But I am hopefull that events in Egypt may be signalling the emergence of a new generation of doers. that will finally rid the continent of imcompetent dictators.
Most people are not aware that the European, American and probably Chinese governments do subsidize agriculture to make them more competitive in the global market. There is an inherent national interest in food security, and any government that is not capable of proviing food security is doomed to fail in the next food crisis.

olugbenga adesanya
March 07, 2011

I agree. There is no silver bullet to feeding Africa. We must exploit all options.

mwansa chalwe
March 12, 2011

Letters in Africa means; A-- Ambition, F-- Faith, R--Responsblity, I--Integrity, C--Courage, and A--Abundance, quoted Lawrence Mukuka, PHD. The change for Africa today is not the chnage between individuals, "The greatest change for Africa today is the change within each individual from negative mindset the root cause of poverty, corrupation and all other ills to positive mindset the root cause of wealth creation,health,happiness and all positive conditions. Counting more on changing mindsets rather than on financial resources to promote sustainable develpment. "Africa people today are what they think" A lot of people are focusing and thinking about poverty, so do they expect poverty. What you think is what you attract, the a person focuses on poverty the more poverty. Never think about what you dont what in your life to happen to you. The bible says"You reap what you have sown" A thought is a cause and the experince is seed of cause. You cannot change circumstance(POVERTY) without first changing the cause. For years the mindset has worked aganist Africans and giving them unwanted results. The mind was designed by God to work for a person, not a person to work for the mind. If a person thinks negatively or poverty the mind will give poverty because that waht is thinking about. Change is the mindset fisrt. The writer M..........

olugbenga adesanya
March 14, 2011

I agree on mind renewal and of course the need to embrace change in its entirety for Africa to develop.

February 07, 2012

The "rice revolution" open great opportunities to invest in Africa, and help further growth.
I wrote a blog post about it here: http://articlesubmit.info/investing-in-africa