A story about Rice and Senegal on World Food Day

Sunday 16 October is World Food Day.

To celebrate the efforts and achievements of farmers, suppliers, processors, distributors and retailers (from field to fork) as well as to highlight the ongoing challenges to meet demand, access and affordability, raise nutition content and reduce waste, we are pleased to bring you a guest blog from Victoria Crandall, who runs a research consultancy focusing on Sub-Saharan Africa's agriculture and soft commodites.

Here Victoria gives her personal story about a recent visit to Senegal, West Africa, discussing local food habits, the legacy and economics of imported food against home-grown, and the associated food security risks across much of the region.  


"During a visit to Dakar, I was on a mission to eat one last tchep before dashing off to the airport. Thieboudienne, or tchep as it is commonly called, is the Senegalese national dish: a simple pairing of fish, rice, and vegetables.

I spotted a tiny hole-in-the wall where I ordered tchep rouge, called red for the tomato paste flavored rice.

I happily tucked into the dish between sips of spicy ginger juice. A fiery and tangy red sauce gave the dish an irresistible bite. But, as I fell into a refined carbohydrate-induced stupor, I regretted polishing off the compact mound of starchy rice. I staggered out of the restaurant, kicking myself for not accepting the complementary mint tea, which would have revived me for the airport.

Senegal is a glutton of the starchy grain

Like many West African dishes, the Senegalese tchep is an excuse to eat copious amounts of rice. Although West Africans are large rice consumers, Senegal is truly a glutton of the grain, with the region’s highest per capita consumption rate of an estimated 90 kg. The starchy grain is filling, relatively inexpensive and easy to prepare, making it a staple food of urban Senegalese.

Rice is the perfect sauce delivery vehicle and provider of calories for the majority of the population who cannot afford costly animal protein. The centrality of rice in the Senegalese diet is apparent in its most famous dishes – tchep, poulet yassa, and mafé – which all consist of a small portion of chicken or fish accompanied by large amounts of white rice. These dishes are renowned for their standout sauces, using local ingredients for truly unique flavors.

Watch out rice traders: Senegalese prefer broken rice

The white rice in Senegal is particular. The grain is finely broken, resembling couscous. According to an almost apocryphal story, the French introduced broken rice (riz brisé) to the Senegalese during the colonial period. French merchants struggled to sell large stocks of Vietnamese rice because the grains had been broken during the milling process. Considered to be of poor quality, the small grain rice was not even fit for human consumption, and was sold as animal feed.

But, enterprising French traders dumped the stocks in Senegal where it found a market due to its low cost. Over time, broken rice gained the favor of the local population. Rice traders that are new to the region struggle to sell long-grain white rice; the grain needs to have a large percentage of “brokens” or it will sit in the warehouse, untouched. Local wholesalers won’t buy it. Cautionary tales abound of clueless traders, stuck with cargos of gleaming polished long-grained rice since they were ignorant of local consumer preferences.

The double-edged sword of cheap Asian rice

While rice used to be a luxury food – it is still only eaten on rare occasions in impoverished rural areas – the grain has turned into a staple food for West Africa’s urban population due to the overabundance of cheap Asian rice.

The world’s top rice producers Thailand, Vietnam and India dump rice onto the global market after a bumper crop or liquidation of stocks, causing rice prices to crash. Over decades, it became so inexpensive to ship a container of Asian rice to West Africa that Asian perfumed rice began to vie with local yams, cassava and plantains as the main staple food.

But, rice markets can easily shift into deficit. Since global rice production is highly concentrated in Asia, which consumes the lion’s share of its own output, a relatively tiny share of the rice crop is traded on the international market, representing less than 10% of total global production.

If a bad monsoon devastates the local rice crop, governments in Asia, preoccupied with feeding their own populations, will ban exports. A supply crunch leads to skyrocketing rice prices, putting pressure on major rice importers, such as Senegal.

In 2008, after international rice prices surged to a high of $1000/MT, civil unrest broke out in Senegal. These “food riots” (émeutes de la faim) raised concerns over Senegal’s long-term food security and repercussions on its political stability.

The regional drive towards self-sufficiency

In response, the Senegalese government has vowed to attain self-sufficiency in rice production, which is no easy feat. Although rice is an indigenous crop to West Africa (For a fascinating history of how African slaves brought rice cultivation techniques to the U.S., check out Peter Wood’s Black Majority and Judith Carney’s Black Rice), it is difficult to grow rice at a low enough price to compete with cheap Asian rice. The region’s rice production costs are high due to poor infrastructure, expensive electricity, and dependency on smallholder farmers preventing economy of scale.

This has pushed West African governments to enact restrictive trade policies to protect local rice production. The Senegalese government requires that traders first purchase available stocks of local rice before resorting to imports for which there are strict quotas. The region’s largest rice consumer, Nigeria, was even more extreme in looking to protect its local industry. After investing significant political capital into its rice self-sufficiency policy, making it a cornerstone of its agriculture transformation policy, the Nigerian government banned all rice imports.

But, this policy response was a paper tiger, as the absence of strong institutions and corruption made it nearly impossible to eliminate smuggling of rice imports. Although the outlook for Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire (which also jumped on the rice self-sufficiency bandwagon) is clouded, Senegal has a brighter future. According to an optimistic rice trader, Senegal is doing it right, allowing trading houses to set up large commercial rice farms. His enthusiasm for the project caught me off guard; I wasn’t used to hearing optimism from trading houses in discussions on West Africa and rice. If successful, these large-scale rice farms will help Senegal meet its insatiable appetite for the grain.

I was reminded of the centrality of rice in Senegal’s cuisine while popping by Teranga, Abidjan’s go-to Senegalese restaurant, for a late lunch. Despite it being almost three o’clock, the place was packed with suit-clad professional clientele. As I sat down, I eagerly waited to order a tchep rouge au poisson, but, to my dismay, the restaurant had already run out of fish. I settled for the chicken.

Although I tried to restrain myself, I devoured the entire plate of rice. Again."

You can read more about Victoria's consultancy and several more blogs and insights on her At Origin website.

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