Food Historic Accomplishments Science

Food series: Story of African rice, developed around 3,500BCE – 1,500BCE

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At the end of a wedding ceremony, after the bride and groom have been blessed, it is traditional in most cultures of the world to throw grains of rice over the heads of the newlyweds. But, have you ever wondered –of all the grains under the sun- why rice in particular? Rice symbolizes fertility, luck and wealth, that is why of all the grains, it is chosen to wish the newlyweds a life of fertility and prosperity.

Rice is the most widely consumed staple food for an enormous part of the world’s population, especially in Africa and Asia. Its agricultural production takes third place worldwide (741.5 million tonnes), after sugarcane  (1.9 billion tonnes) and maize (1.0 billion tonnes) according to statistics conducted in 2014. However, among the three, rice is solely consumed by humans, which makes it nutritionally, the most important grain. It provides more than one-fifth of the calories consumed by humans worldwide.

The grain rice is a seed of either of two species Oryza glaberrima (African rice) or Oryza sativa (Asian rice). African rice has been cultivated for at least 3500 years after being domesticated between 3,500 BC and 1,500 BC by the Mande people. Between 1500 and 800 BC, African rice spread from its original center in the Niger River delta and extended to Senegal. Alas, with the Asian species being introduced to East Africa early in the late 19th century, the cultivation of African rice started to decline and so the number of African rice varieties started to decline as well. At the time however, African rice was preferred for its taste. Farmers would grow African rice for their own consumption, and they grew Asian rice to sell.

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A chart showing the rice production by region in Africa

If we compare African rice to Asian rice, we will find some remarkable advantages that favour African rice. For one thing, African rice has greater resistance to many biotic and abiotic stresses and it possesses a greater ability to compete with weeds. It requires low-labour and is suited to a variety of harsh conditions. The higher levels of breakage of grains during milling and the red pericarp are usually referred to as negative attributes of African rice. However, it is a fact that the red pericarp rice possesses superior nutritional qualities and thus, its use should be encouraged. The noticeable grain breakage is due to the prevailing hot and dry conditions in the sub-Sahara regions during the harvest season. Varieties of the white pericarp rice have also evolved in Africa rice, due to mutations or natural crossings with introduced white pericarped Asian rice varieties.

Africa’s rate of rice production could hardly keep up with its rising population and the population’s ever-growing rice consumption. It is estimated that the consumption of rice in Africa increases by 3% every year. Today, we see the manifestation of this problem in how the African region has become highly import-dependent for rice. Africa alone accounts for 20-30 of the global rice imports, while Africa and the Middle East together account for almost half of the total global rice trade. The question that raises itself here is, if a biotic factor (a pest for example) evolved among Asian rice and negatively affected its production, what will happen then?

Africa currently imports a total of about $5.6 billion worth of rice. If we take a closer look at the numbers by the major importing countries, we will find it rather shocking. Benin takes first place with a 5%  of the worldwide rice import. At 2.4%, South Africa comes in second place, followed by Senegal, Kenya, Cameroon, Madagascar, Mozambique, and the list goes on and on to include a total of 53 African countries spending millions on importing rice. It is shocking because of the fact that this is a land that has all what it takes to cultivate, harvest and produce high quality nutritional local rice. It is shocking because Africa’s ancestors made the technological developments that would pave the road for future generations to live self sufficiently depending on their variety of agricultural products rather than having to spend billions that would otherwise have a much better use if spent on developing Africa’s societies.

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A graph showing trends of production divided by consumption of rice in Africa (i.e. consumption increases with comparison to production)

African rice was first domesticated in West Africa. From there, it was taken to the Americas by enslaved West African rice farmers. The African rice seeds were carried as supplies on slave ships, and the African enslaved rice farmers were the ones who brought about the technology and skills needed for the rice plant to grow. African presence was particularly noticeable during founding of the English colony in South Carolina, and by 1715, the African population was about 60% of South Carolina’s total population. Therefore, it can be said with confidence that, the state acquired its wealth, grew and prospered with the hands of Africans. Yet somehow, some people manage to fog the truth and perpetuate ridiculous claims such as teaching that African slaves were unskilled, while European workers were skilled.  Just one look at the historical facts immediately debunks those claims and proves how much of an asset Africans were in planting the first seeds of today’s billion-dollar rice industry.

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When it comes to how African rice can be used, we will find that it is highly versatile, for along with the common purposes of both the African and Asian rice species, there are other region-specific ways by which African rice is used. For example, West Africa’s Mandingo and Susu people use the combination of rice flour and honey in making a sweet-tasting bread. It is such a special kind of bread that it serves as the centerpiece of ceremonial rituals. Throughout West Africa, rice beer is quite a popular drink, and Nigeria has a special beer made of rice and honey that goes by the name “betso” or “buza”. Furthermore, due to the high nutritional value of African rice, Ivory Coast has been implementing a project that creates baby foods using African rice as the main ingredient.

In Arab Cuisine, rice is an essential dish accompanying meals of fish, poultry and other types of meat. It is also used in the “Mahshi”  dish to stuff vegetables such as zucchini, eggplants bell pepper, and tomatoes, as well as the “dolma” dish where the rice is wrapped in grape leaves. Many desserts such as rice porridge, milk rice and other varieties are made by combining rice with milk, sugar and honey.

Africa is blessed with vast lands and enough people to cultivate the rice needed by its population. What it needs is proper investments in agriculture to finance farmers and farmlands in order to enhance irrigation systems, provide quality fertilizers and improve the overall farming methods, which accordingly, will result in boosting the African rice yield. This is a golden opportunity to reduce the African dependence on Asian rise and thus, reduce the trade gap of its poor countries with the world. It is also a chance to improve the African self-esteem and contribute to the diversity of the global food supply. If we do not take action today, we as mankind may pay for it tomorrow.

Bibliography

  • National Research Council (1996). “African Rice”. Lost Crops of Africa: Volume I: Grains. Lost Crops of Africa. National Academies Press. ISBN 978-0-309-04990-0.
  • Linares, Olga: African rice (Oryza glaberrima): history and future potential. PMID: 12461173 PMCID: PMC138616  DOI: 10.1073/pnas.252604599
  • Sarla, N.; Swamy, B. P. Mallikarjuna (2005-09-25). “Oryza glaberrima: A source for the improvement of Oryza sativa”. ResearchGate. 89 (25). ISSN 0011-3891.