The economic implications of Zimbabwe's growing taste for rice

Dec 14, 2011

A leading Zimbabwean food company has just opened a new rice processing plant. It says there is a growing local demand for rice, which is becoming more of an everyday food starch than before, when it was usually eaten on special days or occasions. A seemingly innocuous dietary trend could quite unintentionally have big long term implications on the country’s food security, by contributing to dependence on a staple food the country has almost no prospect of being ever self sufficient in.

Newsday of December 6 2011 reported:

National Foods has established a $700 000 rice packaging plant in Mutare to meet increasing demand for the product and complement economic growth in Manicaland Province. The rice packaging plant will enable the company to take advantage of

Mutare’s proximity to the Mozambican port of Beira, through which the company brings in its rice from Asia.

“Rice is no longer the luxury that it used to be,” a National Foods spokesperson said. “In the past, it tended to be seen as food for the affluent only or was reserved for important occasions. It is now becoming part of everyday meals for more and more families. We see it becoming a staple food, second only to sadza,” he said.

It seems like a good business move to meet a growing opportunity in the market.

The reported growing demand for rice is significant and interesting because of Zimbabweans erstwhile almost total dependence on maize meal as the source of dietary starch.

Sadza is a thick, heavy, low-bucks food that is very filling. It is well suited for supplying quick energy for heavy manual tasks like working the fields. It is not surprising that so many African agrarian societies took to maize when the European colonists introduced it from Latin America centuries ago.

The society is not as agrarian as it was then, and globalization has introduced new foods and eating habits. Highly processed rice may not be any more nutritious than highly processed maize flour, but it is much more of a convenience food because of its comparative ease and quickness of cooking. For these and perhaps other reasons, it is not difficult to understand the increasing popularity of rice in the Zimbabwean diet.

There is nothing new or unusual about changing consumer trends. Zimbabwe is not famed for its cuisine, so the addition of at least more variety and a move away from the monotonous prevalence of sadza must be considered a positive thing. However, what is a perfectly natural, ‘innocent’ trend may also have big unforeseen economic effects.

The relatively large, mostly dry countries of Africa are in general not as well suited to rice growing as the water-surrounded and often water-logged countries of Asia. Rice by its growing characteristics is inherently better suited to the growing conditions in Asia than those in Africa. New ‘upland’ varieties of rice that do not depend as much on being flooded for part of their growing cycle are increasingly grown in Africa with good success, but few African countries are going to become self-sufficient in rice.

All the African counties for which rice is the main or a major staple food largely import it from Asia. In those countries, rice is as political a food as maize is in countries like Zimbabwe. Governments that don’t work hard at much else nevertheless try to ensure that the staple food is widely available and relatively affordable, including with expensive subsidies, as a safeguard against insurrection from hungry hoards. The rice import and/or subsidy bill is a major part of the expenditure and forex usage of these rice-dependent countries.

Zimbabwe will be joining the rice-dependent countries in having an important staple which must be imported, in Zimbabwe’s case exclusively. Countries like Senegal, Nigeria and others where rice is much more important have at least rice-growing prospects, conditions and efforts which Zimbabwe cannot duplicate. Perhaps the growing demand for rice will spur some cultivation efforts, but these are unlikely to come anywhere close to meeting the demand.

Maize production declined for 10 years from both frequent droughts and the country’s political and economic problems. It is now gradually beginning to recover, but the many pressures against rain-fed maize-self-sufficiency are not going away any time soon. Zimbabwe has enough trouble growing enough of its agriculturally well-familiar main staple crop without taking on a much more difficult crop like rice.

So a country that is already forced to import large quantities of a staple it knows and once grew very well is developing a liking for another starch food, but one which will have to entirely be imported. This may not be a problem if the country is relatively wealthy and has much else it exports, but at least for now, this is certainly not the case for Zimbabwe. In economic and agricultural terms, the country could be said to have developed a growing taste for a new staple that it cannot quite afford.

The Zimbabwe Review


Anonymous said...

It's really pathetic that we're importing rice from Vietnam and Indonesia, despite having the marshlands (mapani) and flood irrigation systems to cultivate enough rice to export. Where are our local rice varieties? The drought resistant strains we used to grow for ceturies? Don't tell me I have to go all the way to Mbare market just to buy the rice our grandparents used to grow in abundance. Elite food? What a joke.

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