Ghanaians feat on 30,000 metric tones of rice
One significant landmark a visitor could easily spot when arriving in Accra is the increasing number of food outlets that are springing up all over the city. They range from first-class restaurants on "Oxford Street" in Osu and other plush suburbs in the capital city to mobile joints, popularly called "chop bars," located at strategic places to catch the customer's eye.
There is one item on the menu in classy restaurant and chop bar alike that is taking food patrons by storm. Rice has become one of the most popular orders at eating places and is even a staple in many homes, replacing traditional foods such as fufu, banku, kenkey, apkele, and tuo zafi. Rice production has also become a prime economic activity in Ghana.
Recent studies by the Ministry of Food and Agriculture have revealed that more people are eating rice now than in the past 20 years. Some economists attribute this changing food taste of Ghanaians to the foreign items and fashion adopted by Ghanaian youth.
In the early 1970s, Ghana used to produce enough rice for local consumption and export. Now, thanks to unbridled trade liberalization, Ghana is now a net importer of rice. It is estimated that Ghana spends US$100 million annually to purchase rice for local consumption.
In a bid to become self-sufficient in rice production, the current government rehabilitated rice farms and irrigation projects across the country last year and gave farmers credit to cultivate more rice.
"The result has been satisfactory," Major Courage Quashigah, Minister of Food and Agriculture, said during a visit to the Afife Rice Farms in the Volta Region of Ghana last month. Quashigah said that last year, Ghana was able to produce 30,000 metric tones of rice for local consumption.
The output is a fulfilment of a government promise to reduce rice importation by at least 30 percent in value from the US$100 million spent on foreign rice imports, said Quashigah. The ministry projects that the expected drop in rice importation would be augmented by the production of 72,000 metric tones of rice next year.
The highlight of the government's local rice consumption campaign came on May 15, 2002 when four brands - Yenmo (literally meaning our pride our rice), Omo tou, Gold Star, and Silver Star - were launched at separate ceremonies in Accra.
Besides taking centre stage in eating places and the Ghanaian economy as a whole, rice has even found its way into politics. Ministers of the former National Democratic Congress (NDC) government on June 4, this year criticized the ruling government for taking full credit for improving rice production in Ghana, when the equipment used in milling the rice was actually installed by Quality Grain Company.
Quality Grain was a company headed by a self-proclaimed rice producer from the United States called Juliet R. Cotton, who moved her operations to Ghana in 1995 at the request of former President Jerry Rawlings. After receiving a US$21 million loan from the government, the company proved to be a scam. On assuming office on January 7, 2001, the current government initiated proceedings against five former ministers and public officials for their complicity in the $21million loss to the state.
The stage was set for a war of words. In response to a comment made by Asiedu Nketia, a former Deputy Minister of Agriculture, that the government was being hypocritical in taking credit for its rice production, government spokesman Kwabena Agyapong announced that the government would not allow its focus on revamping the rice industry to be distracted by the opposition.
"The recent launching of high quality locally produced rice has not only reduced the price of rice on the market, it has also given practical demonstration of the commitment of the government to empower local businesses," said Agyapong. "I challenge the NDC to show evidence of support for local rice industry to the tune of $21 million it gave to Miss Cotton."
Milling, packaging, and marketing local rice are major hurdles confronting the rice industry in Ghana. Equally daunting is unfair competition and high production costs confronting the rice industry. Ironically while western countries subsidise their farmers, they have prohibited African governments from doing the same.
Dr. Fritz Gockel, economics lecturer at the University of Ghana, has argued that if G8 countries would like the world to believe that they are sincere about the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEDPAD), they must support programmes that improve food sufficiency in Africa.
But will the west allow African governments to revamp their agricultural sectors? Recent sarcastic comments about Ghana's rice industry made by Peter Harold, World Bank Resident Director in Ghana, does not suggest so. Harold said on a BBC programme a few weeks ago that Ghana's efforts to achieve self-sufficiency in rice production would yield nothing because Ghana is not competitive on the world market.
Harold's comments drew an angry reaction from the Deputy Minister of Food and Agriculture Dr Majeed Haroun who challenged Harold reconcile his comments with the World Bank's claims of assisting developing countries to improve their economies. "Comments like these are meant to demoralise our farmers from increasing their output," said Haroun.
Feeling the heat of public reaction, Harold on one occasion denied ever making such a statement on the BBC. But when an FM station played back his interview with the BBC, he conceded that he could have made that statement but did not mean any harm by it.
The fall out from this unsavoury comment is that Harold has been transferred to Sri Lanka with effect from July. The World Bank considers Ghana as a star pupil of its economic reform packages, so Harold's comments were considered a major PR flop. His has been replaced by Mats Karlsson, a Swede and one of the bank's vice presidents and an expert in communications who is expect to repair the bad image created by Harold.
To many people, Harold's statement smacks of a ploy by the west to demoralise Ghanaian farmers in order to continue flooding the market with foreign rice. So passionate are Ghanaians about local rice consumption that some people have criticized the government for accepting food aid from foreign donors.
The Japanese government recently gave Ghana $3 million worth of rice. At a press briefing in Accra on April 15, 2002, officials of the Embassy of Japan said that the gift was to complement the government's plans to sustain food sufficiency.
"As one of Ghana's major partners, Japan is willing to help Ghana's development efforts by providing food aid, not to discourage rice production but to help in poverty reduction," said Takanobu Kuruda, First Secretary at the Japanese Embassy.