Senegal’s Rice Revolution

RTI | Int'l Dev
Oct 15 · 6 min read

By Jo Anne Yeager Sallah, RTI International

A farm worker with the Feed the Future-supported Maka Diama Producers Network uses a stone to scare away a bird circling the rice fields. Birds account for a significant share of crop losses for rice farmers. Credit: Patrick Adams for RTI International.

In Senegal, the national dish is never far away. Stop in nearly any curbside canteen and you’re sure to find “thiebou dienne,” a hearty dish of seasoned fish and vegetables over a bed of steamed rice.

Broken rice, to be exact — or in French, “riz brisé.”

While this Senegalese original is considered low-quality in certain markets, the national dish takes full advantage of the unique features of broken rice. Each small, fractured grain absorbs the rich, spicy red thiebou dienne broth. It is cooked just to al dente, then left to simmer until a crunchy, nearly burnt layer of rice forms on the bottom of the pot. “Khogne,” as the local diners call it in Wolof, refers to those coveted, crunchy bits, which are saved in a separate bowl and shared with guests. Khogne contributes the dish’s signature texture, and is always best prepared with broken rice.

Senegalese love of thiebou dienne goes beyond the culinary — there’s a palpable sense of pride in the fact that the essential ingredient, riz brisé, is no longer a solely imported staple, but one that is produced on home soil. The emergence of a national rice industry is sparking renewed interest in agriculture for young people, with the potential for new jobs, the introduction of new technologies and machinery, and a modern take on agriculture.

Fatou Thiam, owner of the GIE Yoonu Toll rice company, pours rice into a single-pass mill on the floor of her small processing plant in northern Senegal. With support from Naatal Mbay, which provided her with training in good agriculture practices and quality control, Fatou was able to secure a bank loan to scale up production. And with assistance in packaging and labeling her product, Fatou has been able to sell her rice through urban distributors in Saint Louis and Dakar. Credit: Patrick Adams for RTI International.

When the world experienced a global increase in food prices a decade ago, Senegal was not immune from the political turmoil that consumed the headlines. Senegalese officials responded with a pledge to dramatically ramp up rice production. And, in collaboration with private sector partners and the U.S. Agency for International Development, the government has done just that. Rice imports in 2016 were reduced by 15 percent, with local rice produced in the country’s remote rural farms finding its place in the urban markets of Dakar. The upward economic trend has continued thanks to increased investment and confidence in the Senegal River Valley’s burgeoning rice industry.

Leveraging the Promise of Digital Technology

A farmer with the Feed the Future-supported Maka Diama producer association taps the CommAgri app, a technology platform now widely used in place of paper-based data collection. Credit: Patrick Adams for RTI International.

Launched in 2015, the Feed the Future Senegal Naatal Mbay program, a four-year effort to scale up successful value chain approaches, has helped forge new relationships between farmer groups and financial institutions, equipping rural producers with digital tools to leverage the power of data, and linking those producers with urban markets, putting locally grown rice in stores large and small across the country.

Naatal Mbay, which in Wolof means “flourishing agriculture,” has yielded results. Since the project began, Senegal has more than doubled rice output, producing some 40 percent of domestic annual consumption. That impact is particularly evident in the Saint-Louis region of the Senegal River Valley, the fertile swath of land that straddles the country’s northern and eastern border with Mauritania. One of Naatal Mbay’s larger partners in the region is Maka Diama, a farmer network representing some 416 smallholders with approximately 400 hectares under cultivation.

“Before working with Naatal Mbay, the farmers were producing about 4 tons of rice per hectare,” says Assane Diop, the network’s president. “Now, with higher quality fertilizer and certified seeds, it’s almost twice that amount.”

Diop adds that the increased production owes in part to new GPS-enabled devices and training on their use. The devices, part of a suite of easy-to-use digital tools made available by Naatal Mbay, have helped farmers make precise measurements of their fields and, thus, more accurate estimates of the amount of seed and fertilizer needed for planting. Diop says one might assume that technological devices such as laptops have no place on a farm. “But the Garmin [GPS] is simple, and the information is important — not only for us but for the banks.”

Sacks of rice for sale at a small roadside factory operated by Khar Yalla Gueye, a women’s association in Pont Gendarme, in the Saint-Louis region of Senegal. With support from Naatal Mbay, artisinal producers like Khar Yalla Gueye have been able to improve quality control and gain access to major markets in Dakar and Saint Louis. Credit: Patrick Adams for RTI International.

Facilitating Access to Finance

“Our goal is to strengthen the rice value chain in Senegal by creating the conditions for the secure flow of finances,” says Malick Ndiaye, director general of CNCAS. “And with Naatal Mbay, we’ve put in place an innovative mechanism to do that.”

For years, one of the biggest impediments to rice production in the Senegal River Valley was access to credit. With their crop as their only collateral, smallholder farmers struggled to attract financing from banks wary of taking on the risk. A vicious cycle ensued; credit-strained farmers produced lower yields, leaving them with insufficient income to purchase the premium-quality seeds and fertilizer needed to turn a profit. As a result, many farmers and millers defaulted on their loans, further eroding banks’ faith in rice as a safe investment.

In an effort to remove that bottleneck, Naatal Mbay worked with stakeholders to broker an alternative arrangement with banks serving as trade facilitators, allowing farmers’ associations to provide aggregated paddy rice as loan collateral. The banks extend credit to rice millers, which buy the rice, mill it and sell it to wholesalers who, in turn, supply it to local markets. Under the new system, CNCAS has gone from US$6.9 million in annual loans to farmers to US$20 million, while loan defaults have fallen from more than 20 percent to less than five percent between 2014 and 2018.

Making Progress — From Farms to Markets

A shopper in a supermarket in Dakar, with two sacks of locally produced Karolina rice. Through a series of interventions at various points along Senegal’s rice value chain, Naatal Mbay has helped the country’s high-quality rice brands compete with imports through a supply chain of 20 local mills sourcing from more than 40,000 farmers. Credit: Patrick Adams for RTI International.

Senegal’s agricultural stakeholders have seen a dramatic change in the country’s cereal production in recent years. USAID, through Naatal Mbay and other efforts, has supported that shift by facilitating local solutions to meet local needs. A strategic and thoughtful combination of interventions — from the diffusion of appropriate technologies to informing national policy — has allowed a wider circle of market actors to participate in the rice value chain, bringing jobs and economic growth to a country that’s highly dependent on the success of its agriculture sector.

“Villagers here weren’t involved in [commercial] agriculture before,” says Iba Sall, director general of Coumba Nor Thiam (CNT) Enterprise, one of the valley’s largest producers with its own rice processing plant and an electric-powered irrigation system. “But now they are. Naatal Mbay helped us improve our quality control and bring our products to Dakar, to be sold in the supermarkets. And that has allowed us to expand our operations — to hire more people and to purchase more machinery.”

A customer inspects a handful of locally produced rice for sale at a street market in Saint Louis, Senegal. Credit: Patrick Adams for RTI International.

Learn more about the market systems facilitation processes that led to Naatal Mbay’s successes

RTI | Int'l Dev

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RTI's #globaldev team applies science and knowledge to improve lives in developing countries around the world. An official @RTI_INTL feed.

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