Life after cotton

Known for its palm oil and cotton production, Benin's agriculture sector wants to become known for high-quality rice and to quit importing rice by 2011, according to the government.



People in Benin's agriculture sector must aim high, said the Agriculture Ministry's Antonin Alavo, coordinator of agriculture diversification.



"We have to nurture grand ambitions [knowing] we will achieve less. It took us 30 years to get where we did with cotton. We will not develop a new sector quickly."



Working with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the government is trying to double current rice output by 2011 by producing 2,200 tonnes (mt) of higher-yield rice seeds annually. The country imported nearly 240,000mt of rice in 2004 – the latest data available – and produced 350,000mt in 2007.



Alavo told IRIN the government wants to help farmers move beyond production. "We are taking into account the entire chain: processing, commercialization and adding value to the product."



FAO is launching a US$500,000 rice initiative to produce and distribute New Rice for Africa (NERICA) seeds. A cross between African and Asian rice seeds, they have a shorter growing cycle and have helped boost production in the region.



FAO estimates Benin is using 8 percent of available land for rice cultivation and could save $55 million and cover 70 percent of domestic demand if it invested more in rice production. "If we are producing two tonnes per hectare instead of eight [with high-yield seeds], the farmer loses," said FAO's representative, Jean Prosper Koyo.



Sub-Saharan Africa is a net importer of rice, with Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire among the world's top 10 rice importers. West African rice imports reached six million tonnes in 2001 and are likely to rise to 11 million by 2010, according to FAO.



"For so long Benin has had a one-pronged agriculture policy," said the Agriculture Ministry's Alavo. "First it was palm oil, then cotton. For us it was important to find an alternative solution," he said, referring to the international fall in cotton prices and resulting slump in national cotton production.



Benin is one of Africa's largest cotton producers and exporters, along with Chad, Burkina Faso and Mali.



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