Japan has agreed to grant Senegal US $5 million to help the government improve food security and reduce the country’s dependence on imported rice.
Rice is Senegal’s favourite food and Japanese ambassador Akira Nakajima said half the grant would be used to finance imports.
However, the rest of the money would be used to supply fertilisers to help Senegalese farmers increase the yields of other crops, Nakajima told reporters as he announced the aid package earlier this week.
President Abdoulaye Wade is particularly keen for Senegal’s 10 million population to eat more maize, since the crop grows more easily in this semi-arid country than rice.
Maize production is rising fast and Wade hopes that if he can persuade his countrymen to eat more of it, Senegal’s annual rice import bill of $110 million will start to come down.
However, he faces an uphill task to change the nation’s eating habits.
“Rice is good, I eat it every day” Lissa Faye who a runs a street-side food stall in Dakar told IRIN. “I eat rice, I buy rice and I sell it too, it’s good!”
Ali Doure, sat on a bench behind the plastic sheeting Lissa puts up as a windbreak for her customers. In between spoonfuls of tchepp – the Senegalese national dish made from rice with fish, vegetables and oil – he agreed with every word the owner of the food stall said.
“The best meals are those prepared with rice,” Doure said, ploughing his way though a 250 CFA (50 US cent) plateful of food.
Mamadou Djiba, a low paid security guard, who grew up in Senegal’s Casamance region, one of the most lush and fertile parts of the country, explained that for many Senegalese only rice will do.
“People here, they say that if you haven’t had rice with your meal then you haven’t eaten!” he said.
The problem is that the Senegalese munch their way through 900,000 tonnes of rice every year, but only 200,000 tonnes of this are produced locally.
This poor West African country can ill afford to import the remainder. According to the World Bank, rice imports amount to 2.2 percent of Senegal’s gross domestic product GDP).
Only a few areas of the country, particularly the Senegal River valley in the north of the country, are wet enough and fertile enough for rice growing.
Hence the government’s enthusiasm for promoting the consumption of other locally grown cereals such as maize, sorghum and millet instead.
According to the International Institute of Tropical Africa, IITA, maize has a higher protein content than rice and can be grown in a wider array of agro-ecological zones.
Maize production in Senegal is already on the rise. According to Agriculture Minister, Habib Sy, production increased six-fold from 85,779 tonnes in 2002 to 521,000 tonnes in 2003.
Figures from the IITA indicate maize producers across Africa would benefit enormously from the wider use of fertilisers.
Average maize production per hectare in sub-Saharan Africa is 1316 kg, according to IITA.
That is just a third of the average world maize yield of 4,255kg and one sixth of the US average maize yield of 8600 kg.
“Rice is good,” Djiba said as he cleaned his teeth with a chewing stick. “But it requires a lot of work and water to grow it. Maize is easier to grow and there is plenty you can do with it. And it tastes good if you have it with a good sauce.”