As Pakistan floods and India curbs rice exports, Africa braces for high prices

·3-min read
© Manjunath Kiran, AFP

The devastating floods in Pakistan, which plunged great swaths of agricultural land under water – coupled with India's decision to curb its rice exports – risk exacerbating food insecurity in the African countries most dependent on imports from Asia.

The war in Ukraine, which sparked soaring wheat and corn prices, has hit the continent of Africa hard over the past six months. Now, a new food crisis looms as the continent faces a likely rise in the price of rice, a staple on many African tables.

The recent devastating floods in Pakistan plunged great swaths of paddy fields under water, decimating the standing monsoon harvest and threatening to disrupt the upcoming winter harvest.

Last week, India – the world’s biggest rice exporter – banned shipments of broken rice (rice fragments broken in the field or during transport or milling) and imposed a 20% duty on exports of other types as the country tries to boost supplies and calm prices after below-average monsoon rainfall curtailed planting.

Exports could plummet by 25% in the next few months, according to Himanshu Agarwal, executive director of Satyam Balajee, India's biggest rice exporter. "The prices of all grains had been rising, except rice. Now it will join this trend," said Agarwal in an interview with Reuters.

Meanwhile Thailand and Vietnam have agreed to raise rice prices to better remunerate their farmers.

"There are going to be major strains on food security in many countries," warned Phin Ziebell, an agribusiness economist at National Australia Bank.

Africa's rice dependency

The recent floods in Pakistan are likely to lead to a spike in global rice prices, warned Nicolas Bricas, UNESCO Chair on World Food Systems, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

"Pakistan is a major rice exporter. However, a third of the country is under water and therefore there is a risk of an increase in the price of rice on the international market," he said.

Finally, an increased Chinese demand for broken rice to replace corn, which has become too expensive to feed livestock, has also driven up prices in recent months.

This is more bad news on the food security front for sub-Saharan Africa, which depends heavily on rice imports from Asia. Africa this year could absorb 40% of the world rice trade, or a record 20 million tonnes, according to FRANCE 24’s sister radio station, Radio France Internationale (RFI).

"The problem of this dependence on rice imports is chronic and will continue," explains Patricio Mendez del Villar, an economist at the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development.

"Local production cannot keep up with the demand curve, which is increasing with population growth and urban growth. In Africa, rice is preferred by urban dwellers because it is a ready-to-use product, unlike traditional cereals such as millet and sorghum, which require preparation.”

New harvest could ease pressures

Although food security in sub-Saharan Africa does not rely solely on rice, it remains the second-most-consumed cereal after corn. A surge in prices would be a further blow to populations already weakened by the rise in the price of foodstuffs.

The situation is particularly critical in the Horn of Africa, which is experiencing a historic drought. More than 22 million people from southern Ethiopia to northern Kenya and Somalia are threatened by hunger, according to the UN.

Despite these concerns, rice prices are not yet soaring and a price increase should remain "contained" and short-lived, according to Mendez del Villar.

"The main harvest in the major producing and exporting countries (India, Thailand and Vietnam) will start in a few weeks. All this rice will be added to stocks that will be at their maximum, which will push these countries to sell the old crop to make storage room. This should ease the pressure on the market. If it were March or April, it would be much more problematic," explained Mendez del Villar.

As for Pakistan, it only exports 4 million tons of rice per year, compared to India’s 21 million tonnes. "The market should, therefore, be able to withstand the shock even if Pakistan limits its exports," said Mendez del Villar.

This article has been translated from the original in French.