A way forward for Ethiopia’s rice sector: Outcomes of a national event

Written by: Hannington Odame and Dawit Alemu

This blog is the second in our two-part series on the APRA Ethiopia team’s recent national event, entitled “Rice Sector Transformation Event in Ethiopia – Lessons from APRA Programme”, which aimed to discuss the country’s rice sector, including the trends in the production, import and consumption of rice, the key challenges facing the sector, and the policy and development lessons for addressing the identified challenges. The previous blog reflected on the key findings and takeaways of the synthesis presentation given during the event, which was followed by a lively discussion among the speakers and attendees around the pathways to improving Ethiopia’s rice sector. This blog presents the key topics and conclusions of these discussions.

Scaling from the Fogera Plain

Before we talk of scaling lessons from the Fogera Plain, we need to think of mainstreaming rice in the regional and national extension system. Second, we must develop an inventory/suitability assessment of Ethiopia’s rice potential in terms of natural ecology including for irrigated rice. So far, the natural ecology is fragmented and hence promotion of rice will incur high transaction costs. The suitability analysis requires involvement of research on the ecology study by the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research and the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) on extension to effectively utilise both the natural rice ecologies and artificial rice production ecologies – such as construction of dams. The latter should consider issues of climate change. 

Increasing rice productivity

Increasing rice productivity should consider ‘producing rice in a system’. This includes integrating rice with aquaculture, horticulture or livestock. It is also important to think of rice in the context of rural-urban linkages in terms of markets, employment, and services. For example, rice productivity in Tanzania and Japan is based on farmers’ total income. Rice is thus promoted in synergy with horticultural (e.g. vegetable) production for income generation during the dry season. The income from horticulture is reinvested in the procurement of improved rice seed and machinery services.

Competitiveness of rice in Ethiopia

When we talk about import substitution, do we have sufficient quantity and quality of rice produced at the local level that can competitively substitute rice imports? What is the relationship between quantity and quality of rice and rice processing in Ethiopia?

To enhance rice import substitution, we need to increase rice productivity (quantity and quality of rice). This, in turn, calls for supportive policy and incentives in rice production and processing. It was argued that the smallholder rice commercialisation process in Ethiopia is slow because of the weak linkages between rice production and processing, as well as low rates of mechanisation to improve quality and quantity of rice (both paddy and milled). The poor quality of paddy rice and processed rice are associated with the type of machinery in the rice production and processing stages. For instance, in the Fogera Plain, there is rampant use of traditional machinery for pre-processing, processing, and post-processing of rice. This situation calls for investing in better processing machinery, building better capacity of use, repair, and maintenance of the machinery, and providing incubation and demo sites to create jobs for the youth.

Overall, mechanisation is critical for improving quantity and quality of rice in Ethiopia in order to address import substitution. This can be achieved by first developing a suitability map for both irrigated rice and rain-fed rice production; and second, enabling a proper design of production and processing systems – which require incentives on mechanisation and collaboration among the government, private sector, and civil society. Specifically, the role of the private sector is critical in linking private processors to the producers – with the government playing a facilitative role. Mechanisation in rice processing is a big challenge in the country; therefore, MoA can play a catalytic role in providing cost-sharing arrangements in the production and post-production stages for the private sector to invest in rice mechanisation.

Making rice an important strategic crop in Ethiopia

Why talk of improving productivity when there are already 38 new high-yielding rice varieties available? What is the problem? How can we ensure competitiveness of Ethiopian rice in the market? Does this require revising the National Rice Strategy? How do we strengthen the steering and the technical committees on rice development in the country? How do we strengthen monitoring, evaluation and learning to document lessons in the Fogera Plain and scale them up in other areas?

The important debate these questions create revolves around developing a research and development strategy and rice flagship which can first make the Fogera National Rice Research and Training Centre a centre of excellence in research, extension, and mechanisation. Second, from a productivity and competitiveness perspective, the 38 rice (and other additional) varieties should consider different market segments/niches and the required preliminary quality attributes. Third, the Fogera Plain is mid-altitude for rice – which means that there are other productivity and ecological systems which are not catered for by the available rice varieties. This situation calls for developing rice varieties for the diverse niche ecologies that exist in Ethiopia.

Fostering global partnerships

Global partnership is about ‘give and take’ in a business relationship. The partnership includes the government creating incentives for the private sector to invest in the rice value chain because there are multiple opportunities in the sector especially in mechanisation. In particular, the private sector can foster incubation in mechanisation. This situation calls for revisiting National Rice Strategy Plan and the flagship documents on global partnerships –not only in technology but also knowledge management (know-how and innovation) in a sustainable business relationship among the existing and new actors.