Sifelani Tsiko — Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor
The figures are quite startling. Zimbabwe is a net importer of rice and on average spends a whopping US$80 million on rice imports a year.
In 2020, alone, nearly US$100 million was spent on bulk rice imports. The country only produces a tonne of rice annually, while it imports over 250 000 tonnes.
This is not sustainable for our national fiscus with so many pressing demands. Apart from this, it is important for our country to grow what it eats.
Food security matters are also food security issues. Zimbabwe cannot afford to depend heavily on rice imports given price fluctuations, the restrictions that come with the Covid-19 pandemic and growing demand for the staple across the world.
And, moves by top Zimbabwe seed producer — Seed Co to release two varieties of rice suitable to our local dry-land farming conditions are quite pleasing.
They will certainly give a fresh impetus to all efforts to cut our import bill and reduce heavy reliance on food imports.
After Seed Co carried intensive trials and assessment, Zimbabwe is now set to start commercial rice production this year.
Prospects are now bright that the country’s agricultural sector could soon add rice to its list of crops cultivated locally.
This is quite uplifting and offers exciting prospects for Zimbabwean agriculture. Food tastes have changed significantly over the last four decades.
Apart from maize, sorghum and millet staple grain food, there is a new demand for rice in he country. A US$80 million rice import bill speaks volumes about the changing staple taste.
Seed Co global head for Research and Development, Dr Gorden Mabuyaye said his company was now ready to release SCOP02 and SCOP04 rice varieties to farmers in the country.
“With the idea of saving the country millions of dollars in import fees in mind, we undertook research and development of these two rice varieties which upon completion tried and tested in local climatic conditions and rainfall patterns. The pilot project on the seed was successfully and we licensed it,” he told the media recently.
“Currently we are in the process of bulking up seed in preparation for those farmers who intend to undertake its production in the next agricultural seasons.”
Rice has never been produced commercially on a big scale in the country even though there is a history of the production of indigenous brown rice in wetlands, commonly referred as ‘matoro.’
According to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), 90 percent of the world’s rice is cultivated in South, Southeast, and East Asia.
Globally, rice is grown in more than a hundred countries with a total harvested area of nearly 160-million hectares, producing more than 700-million tons every year.
One fifth of the world’s population depends on rice cultivation for their livelihoods.
Malawi, is a key producer of rice here in southern Africa. It is estimated that the neighbouring country has 600 000 hectares of land that can be used for rice production.
Experts say if this area is fully utilised, the country could produce more than 2 million metric tonnes of rice per annum, with Zimbabwe, Mozambique, DRC and other countries in the region as the market.
At present, Malawi is producing 150 000 tonnes of rice per annum and Zimbabwe can tap on its vast agricultural expertise and extension network to promote the growing of this staple.
The Zimbabwean economy and agricultural sector can benefit significantly from introducing another grain crop such as rice.
The release of the Seed Co rice varieties is a very positive development for the country and there are many farmers who are interested in growing rice.
Rice is a cereal grain summer crop and many grain farmers in Zimbabwe would be interested in growing rice as a means to diversify their farming operations.
Local production boosted by irrigation activities too, will also reduce the country’s reliance on rice imports.
Many trials have been done across Africa and show that rice does not have to be cultivated in water-logged fields.
Experts say it can be planted in any soil, provided the soil contains 15% clay at least.
Zimbabwe needs to fight the common misconception that rice can only grow in watery paddy fields.
Dryland rice farming is possible as well as wetland rice growing.
SeedCo and government extension workers need to raise awareness on rice growing prospects in the country.
With better training, adequate seed, capital and inputs, it is possible that Zimbabwean farmers can take up rice farming.
Rice prices could also be a good incentive for farmers.
Experts say that rice production under irrigation is viable and globally, irrigated rice environment accounts for about half of the harvested rice area and contributes 75% of global rice production.
Worldwide, about 80-million hectares of rice are grown in irrigated areas. Experts say high-yielding areas of irrigated rice can be found in China, Egypt, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Republic of Korea, and the Senegal River Valley in Africa.
The key to achieving this goal is not just on-farm assistance, such as introducing rice varieties that fit the diverse Zimbabwean agro-ecologies but improving irrigation facilities and disseminating rice growing techniques to the farmers.
It is also essential to formulate and implement strategic national plans to stimulate rice production in the country.
With increased investment, better agricultural rice policies and more support for farmers, Zimbabwe can achieve an agricultural revolution in rice production.