USDA’s review of the coarse grains sector in Benin, published in January 2013, includes a review of the rice sector. The review notes that Benin’s government is currently seeking to promote self-sufficiency in rice production by 2015, and with donor support, is providing free seeds, subsidised fertiliser, pumps for tube wells and other forms of project-based irrigation support. Benin’s government agency to support food security (ONASA – the Office National d’Appui a la Securité Alimentaire) “buys the [rice] harvest, mills it and sells it in their stores around the country”. Since 2011, ONASA has two operating rice mills.
Once self-sufficiency has been attained, the government is looking in the medium term to develop official rice exports, with a target date of 2018 for Benin becoming a significant regional rice exporter. However, this official position appears at variance with current realities.
While in recent years rice consumption in Benin appears to have been growing strongly, USDA questions whether this is in fact the case, since “consumption may be overestimated due to cross border trade between Benin, Niger and Nigeria.” According to USDA, “an estimated 75 percent of the (rice) production in northern Benin leaves the country, as traders from Niger and Nigeria offer higher prices and faster cash payments.”
Other sources cited in the USDA review suggest that “approximately 2/3 of locally grown rice paddy is sold to Nigerian traders”, in part reflecting the preference of Beninese consumers for imported fragrant rice over local varieties. The review mentions a 2003 study suggesting that “more than 43 percent of the population consumes only imported rice”, despite the higher price of imported rice. For this reason, the government of Benin is seeking to improve the quality of locally produced rice.
In addition, USDA reports that “Nigerian traders buy much of the imported rice”, nearly half of it then being informally traded into Nigeria (approximately 100,000 tonnes out of the 200,000 tonnes imported). Only 50,000 tonnes of rice exports are officially recorded. This informal trade is seen as likely to increase, following the imposition of new Nigerian import levies in the 2012/13 marketing year. The USDA analysis implicitly suggests that the Nigerian government’s import tariff increases may increase risks of rice smuggling via Benin.
A report in the Nigerian press in January notes that the growing concerns of the Rice Millers, Importers and Distributors Association of Nigeria (RIMIDAN) over rice smuggling from Benin have led the Nigerian federal parliament to call for more effective action to curb rice smuggling. RIMIDAN estimates that “30,000 metric tonnes of rice is smuggled every month into [the] country” and says that investigations show that “smugglers have been capitalising on porous Nigerian borders to flood the country with rice, while the genuine importers are paying as much as 50 per cent duty.” RIMIDAN claims that the activities of the rice smugglers are “undermining [the] government's policies and programmes directed at boosting local food production”.
Benin’s Strategic Plan to Revitalise the Agriculture Sector (PSRSA), covering the period 2009–2015, emphasises the promotion of priority commodity value chains for food security and trade. This includes rice because of its growing socio-economic and dietary importance in the country and the region. According to Ministry of Agriculture reports, the country has great potential to promote the expansion of rice farming due to the available land suitable for irrigation (322,000 ha, of which only 10% is currently used), its surface water and underground water resources. Benin plans to exploit this comparative advantage and produce more rice for both domestic and regional markets.
Investment in research to improve the production, quality, packaging and delivery to market of locally produced rice will be required, if current consumer preferences for imported rice are to be overcome, and growing national and regional demand is to be met from local production.
This issue is common to a range of West African rice producers and could potentially benefit from a common regional approach, particularly with regard to quality grading and more general product standards.
The need for a regionally coordinated approach to rice sector development in West Africa has recently been taken on board through the launch by ECOWAS of its ‘Rice initiative’ (Note d’orientation stratégique de l’offensive régionale). It is hoped that the regional approach taken by ECOWAS, together with the Africa Rice Centre and a range of food security bodies and farmers’ organisations, will effectively lead to better coordination of rice sector development and trade in West Africa.