Jan 14, 2016
West African Rice Import Comparison
Paul Conton

Rice is an important commodity in West Africa. In some countries, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, it is the staple food, eaten almost every day by almost everyone, and it is very important. In all other West African countries its consumption has been on a steady, long-term increase as consumer preferences shift, and its importance is therefore growing. Rice also, unlike some of the other West African staples like cassave and yams, is a heavily traded commodity internationally, subject to GATT, to aggressive global marketing and the fierce supply and demand pressures of the open market, as well as to the manipulations of governments of consuming and producing nations. In the 2007-08 rice crisis, some exporting nations enforced an export ban to protect their local markets, whilst importing nations scrambled to stockpile rice for domestic food security. Rice statistics then tell us much about a consuming nation's ability to feed itself and to compete in the global martketplace.

West Africa, with its heavy rainfall, swamps, fertile soils and large rural populations should be able to produce its rice needs domestically, and yet the region is a net importer. Rice is an even more important commodity in Asia, where it is the staple almost everywhere and is exported by several countries. Even a country like Japan, with relatively scarce land resources, highly technologically advanced with exports of far higher value than humble grains, a country that might perhaps profit by buying some of its food abroad rather than growing it, even Japan goes to great lengths and takes great pride in being self-sufficient in rice. Other Asian producers with yearly rice surpluses, such as Thailand, Vietnam, India, Pakistan and Burma have been laughing all the way to the bank as West Africans cue up at their doorstep to buy rice from them.

In the West African rice consumption chart below, most countries show a marked rise in per capita consumption in the years since Independence. Consumers have been turning more and more to rice as their staple in preference to yam, cassava and millet. The West African countries can be divided into three groups: the very high rice consumers (> 80 kg per person per year) are Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea-Bissau. In the medium category (40-80 kg per person per year) are Benin, Mali, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Gambia. And the countries with relatively low per capita rice consumption (< 40 kg per year) are Niger, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Togo, Nigeria and Ghana. However, if trends continue many of the low and medium rice consumers will be high rice consumers in the not-too-distant future.

West African Rice Consumption

Source: International Rice Research Institute

When one looks at the rice import figures, the picture is even more dramatic. The combination of increasing rice consumption, increasing populations and rural/urban migration has had an overwhelming effect. All West African countries show a steep increase in rice imports since Independence, with a corresponding  huge increase in the outlay of precious foreign currency. According to the International Rice Research Institute, Sierra  Leone spent 101 million United States dollars on rice importation in 2012; Nigeria spent 1.28 billion dollars in the same year. Some West African economies, like Ivory Coast and Ghana can present the defensible excuse that these imports were counterbalanced by agricultural exports including cocoa and coffee. Others, perhaps Gambia and Mali  can contend that their climactic conditions do not favour rice growing and their economic efforts would be better spent elsewhere.  However the high rice consumers Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, in the heart of the West African rain belt, can present no such arguments. Their food security is incrasingly at risk.

West African rice imports

Nigeria rice imports

Source: International Rice Research Institute

In absolute terms, Nigeria is by far the biggest importer, shown for clarity in a separate chart. But which countries present the highest per capita rice importation. Relative to the size of their populations which countries spend the most on imported rice? The table of 2015 rice imports per capita  reveals Guinea_Bissau in top position, with Nigeria among the lowest per capita importers. Single-year figures may be distorted either by a country drawing down or increasing its internal stockpiles of rice.

2015 Per capita rice imports
Ivory Coast
Sierra Leone
Burkina Faso

The table appears to show a significant correlation with figures presented earlier for West African urbanization. The top five per capita rice importers, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Gambia, Liberia and Ivory Coast are all in a group with the highest relative capital city populations (between 20 and 30 percent of overall national populations). Of the bottom six per capita rice importers, three, Ghana, Nigeria and Niger, had low relative capital city populations (under 10 percent of overall national populations) whilst the other three were in the intermediate range of relative capital city populations. Intuitively this makes perfect sense. If a large percentage of the national population lives in the capital city, these people will not be growing their own food, and all other things being equal will be more likely to eat imported rice.