The Ghanaian government has launched an innovative campaign to get the public to eat locally produced rice, in an effort to offset the negative impacts of cheap imports.
A spicy scent wafts through the air at a busy street corner in Accra. The aroma comes from 'Auntie Salla's' wooden kiosk where she sells her famous waakye, a traditional Ghanaian meal of rice and beans. Auntie Salla skilfully scoops the mixed rice, and hands it to a regular customer, Kofi Nti.
Nti stands in the hot sun looking at his plate. He complains that her waakye is too expensive. "Why do you buy the imported version?" he asks, thinking it's imported rice that has bumped up the price of her waakye.
Auntie Salla takes offence and retorts: "You don't know! I buy Texas long grain rice – it's 270,000 cedis [US$29]. Local rice even costs more. A bag is 300,000 cedis [US$32]."
Auntie Salla has managed to compete against the influx of Chinese takeaways because she buys imported rice from the United States. She also refuses to cut costs and buys the best quality products for her meals.
A few metres down the road is one of the large Oxfam-sponsored billboards that graces the capital city, sporting posters for the "EAT WHAT WE GROW" campaign. The smiling face of a popular television star is trying to persuade people to buy locally, in an effort to counter the effects of cheap rice imports in the country.
The campaign was launched in May 2002 by President John Agyekum Kufuor to encourage production and consumption of local food, particularly rice. The Ghanaian government was concerned that the annual spending of US$100 million on rice imports was too much for the economy. President Kufuor was optimistic about the initiative and said "let's eat what we grow and we can export what we cannot eat".
The government has also provided financial to the rice sector. Specialised companies and individuals with technical know-how in distributing, buying, processing, storage and marketing are being paid to provide farmers with support to get their rice to a ready market.
But Adamu, a farmer who has quit rice farming, says assistance to specialised companies and individuals is not enough. "Ghanaian farmers," he pleads, "need affordable loans and subsidies as well."
Auntie Salla admits that the quality of local rice has improved considerably, but she still prefers buying imported rice because it is cheaper.
One reason why rice from the US, Japan and the European Union are so competitive on the global market is that the governments subsidise the farmers, enabling them to sell rice abroad for less money than it costs to produce.
A former rice farmer, Bampo Opoku is one of hundreds who has felt the impact of cheaper rice imports. "I remember I could marry the very day I harvested my first rice crop. I had no marketing problem," Opoku recalls.
Things are different today. Hope Afedo, a rice farmer from Ashaiman Irrigation Co-operative Society, complains that he cannot sell the rice he harvested six weeks ago. He is desperately trying to find another job with a more reliable income.
Opoku says most farmers, though illiterate, know that over-liberalising the rice trade is responsible for their plight.
Auntie Salla admits the government's campaign to "eat local" is good for the economy and farmers, but she prefers to serve her customers imported rice. "In the past most local brown rice contained too many stones… you lose customers when you serve them waakye with stones. And cooking rice on a large scale, I don't have the time to take out the stones used for drying by farmers," she explains.
She says the highly polished imported rice is a much better alternative, attractively packaged and sold everywhere in Ghana. Retailers also prefer to sell foreign rice because it sells faster than local produce. Consequently most consumers now prefer the taste of imported rice.
Lydia Kwasitsu, who works with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture on promoting the consumption of local rice, says the quality of local rice has improved since the campaign. Farmers have been taught to avoid mixing all types of paddy varieties, which adversely affects the milling quality of the cereal, because most of the grains break. She says Ghanaian local rice will be on a par with imported products if farmers use modern mills that de-stone and clean the rice.
Since the launch of the campaign local production has gradually increased. But Ghana has a long way to go before it can become self-sufficient in rice production.
The Ghanaian authorities have slapped heavy tariffs on imported rice in order to protect the local rice industry. However, the high tariff at the border means smuggling rice from neighbouring countries has now become a lucrative business.
Despite this, some critics of the government suggest that for imported rice to stop depressing local production, even higher taxes should be imposed. But the government warns that taxing rice excessively to reduce imports is not a silver bullet, because local farmers are not able to produce enough rice.
Many consumers in Ghana oppose industrialised economies dumping cheap goods on developing ones. At the same time most Ghanaian consumers – who live on less than a dollar a day – cannot afford to be patriotic and eat what local farmers produce. The "Eat What We Grow" campaign faces many challenges.
Auntie Salla aptly puts it this way: "Serving locally produced rice sounds patriotic… this also means I'm supporting Ghanaian farmers. But first let's see what the prices are on the market and what the rice masters such as Kofi Nti and other customers say about the taste and quantity of my waakye!"
Edwin Kumah Drah is a journalist working for Radio Ghana.