The demand for rice in Rwanda is estimated at 145,000 tonnes per year, while national supply accounts for about 40 per cent, creating a 60 per cent deficit that is met through imports, according to data from the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MINICOM).
In 2020, Rwanda imported more than 120,270 tonnes of rice on which it spent over $61.5 million (about Rwf60 billion). In the previous year (2019), $55.1 million had been spent on importing 112,290 tonnes of rice.
This is despite a commitment made in 2016 to increase production to meet the country's demand for rice by 2018, and stop importing and thereby helping reduce the country's trade deficit.
In 2020, much of the rice was imported from Tanzania, which accounted for 63,311 tonnes worth $38.2 million (about Rwf38 billion), or more than half Rwanda's rice import bill.
Pakistan was Rwanda's second major rice import partner in 2020 as Rwanda bought 47,355 tonnes of rice from the Asian country at a cost of over $18.8 million (about Rwf18 billion).
Overall, the statistics from MINICOM indicate that on average, a kilogramme of imported rice was imported at about Rwf500, but sold at a higher price on the local market given that the traders want to make a profit.
For the rice produced in Rwanda to be able to compete with the imported commodity on the local market, it should have better quality, and be far lower-priced.
However, locally produced rice is generally considered of lower quality, and is sold at almost the same price as some imported brands.
This leaves consumers with no option but go for the imported varieties.
Indeed, the most common variety in Rwanda is the short-grain variety, locally known as Kigori and attracts low demand from milling firms and consumers because it lacks quality.
Charles Bucagu, Deputy Director General in charge of Agriculture Research and Technology Transfer at Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB) said that there are several dimensions associated with this challenge, citing limited production area, high cost of production as compared to neighbouring countries like Tanzania, and the demand which is still higher than local supply.
What are the implications?
This situation makes the local rice market dominated by imports that consumers prefer, especially for quality, and it hinders the growth of the local rice industry.
Giving an example of rice, François Nsengiyumva, Chairperson of Rwanda Chamber of Agriculture and Livestock at Private Sector Federation said that Rwanda could face a situation where it would be importing much of the foods it needs, if no efforts are put in making the local food industry more productive and competitive.
He said that the 60 per cent deficit in rice production vis-a-vis the demand is very indicting.
He said that there is a need for strategic planning to match the efforts in rice production with the country's demand, and advance the local rice industry.
Jérôme Mbonirema, coordinator of UCORIBU, a union of rice farmers' co-operatives operating in the districts of Gisagara, Huye and Nyanza, told The New Times that one of the reason for lack of competitiveness of the local rice sector is that there are parts of Rwanda which are not suitable for growing long-grain rice varieties - those of better quality.
"Apart from growing rice varieties that are not competitive on the market, we also have a problem of high production cost," he said citing lack of agriculture mechanisation.
Some of the marshlands that would be suitable for rice cultivation are not developed, which makes them unutilised.
The average paddy rice (unprocessed rice) yield per hectare is 3.9 tonnes, according to the Upgraded Seasonal Agricultural Survey (SAS) 2020 annual report produced by National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR).
"If marshlands are developed, and the right fertilisers applied along other good farming practices, rice production can average seven tonnes per hectare," Mbonirema said.
Meanwhile, RAB's Bucagu, said that "efforts are being made to increase productivity in marshlands, and use of appropriate fertilisers and proper management (water, disease control, use of highly performing verities from research), also expanding production area."
Bucagu said rice production area in Rwanda is about 15,000 hectares.
The Director of Domestic Trade at MINICOM, Cassien Karangwa said that to reduce Rwanda's rice imports, there is a need to increase production in quantity and quality.
Regarding solving the market issue for locally produced rice, he said, "the ministry is working in collaboration with other concerned government institutions to find a sustainable local market and this will be done in a short time."