Pakistani rice: Second to all

Published April 8, 2019
According to data from the Rice Exporters Association of Pakistan, it sent out a little over four million tonnes (for $2 billion) in 2018. ─ Photo courtesy Ahsan Mahmood/File
According to data from the Rice Exporters Association of Pakistan, it sent out a little over four million tonnes (for $2 billion) in 2018. ─ Photo courtesy Ahsan Mahmood/File

IN Pakistan’s context, rice statistics are pretty impressive. Sown on 2.89 million hectares (about 10 per cent of total cropping area), it earned $2 billion (around 8pc of export income) for the country.

Put it in the agricultural context, it is second to wheat in acreage and, in economic terms, only second to cotton (and its allied products as per Pakistan Bureau of Statistics data) in export earnings. It accounts for 3.1pc of value-addition in the agriculture sector and varyingly contributes 1.3-1.6pc to the GDP.

Last year, it assumed added significance when production hit 7.4 million tonnes placing Pakistan on the list of the 10 largest producers on the world rice chart. According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan (2017-18), the area under rice increased by 6.4pc — 2.74 million hectares in 2016-17 to 2.89 million hectares and production swelled by 8.7 per cent — from 6.84 million tonnes to 7.44 million tonnes.

Both these factors helped Pakistan post a 28pc increase in rice export. According to data from the Rice Exporters Association of Pakistan (Reap), it sent out a little over four million tonnes (for $2 billion) in 2018, as compared to 3.44 million tonnes for $1.6 billion in 2017. This showed a significant growth of 27.7 per cent in terms of value and 17 per cent in terms of quantity.

As far as profiling of rice is concerned, its three board categories are: basmati (long grain and aromatic), coarse (IRRI type) and a generic term called “others.” The last type comprises of hybrid, unapproved and some smuggled varieties that have crept in due to relaxed official control.

What adds to national seed confusion is the fact that the country has approved 108 varieties in the last 15 years — from 2003 to 2018. All of them are now entitled to sale. However, only 48 of them are actually released and found in the field, depending on requirements of different ecological zones. It is the Chinese hybrids which have made the difference in the last two years.

Punjab (with all kinds of basmati, super, IRRI and hybrids) leads the national production scale with a contribution of 53pc. Sindh (IRRI and hybrids) follows with 26pc, Balochistan (IRRI, hybrids) with 12pc and the remaining 9pc comes from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which has many local coarse varieties for hills and plains. Punjab’s contribution may increase as hybrid varieties are now getting more space while competing crops lose economic sheen.

However, this happy rice scenario has two sore points: it is still stuck in a low yield groove and failing in international retail markets. Despite a massive influx of seeds, Pakistan has not been able to break beyond 2.56 tonnes per hectares production. The world average is 4.7 tonnes per hectare production. With high yielding seeds and recommended practices, 4 tonnes per hectare is easily achievable.

The federal Ministry for Food Security and Research took an initiative in 2015 for improving yield and tradable surpluses and enlisted the Chinese for help. For the next two years, both sides made a beeline towards each others’ fields and laboratories. It resulted in better hybrid seeds arriving in Pakistan and making a difference the very next year i.e. 2018.

Last year’s three-pronged increase was the result of the same effort: the area increased by 6.4pc, production went up by 8.7pc and average yield jumped from 825 kilogram per acre in 2010-11 to over 1,000 kilograms.

Despite this, improvements on the supply side and corresponding initiatives on the marketing side — domestic and international — is still a distant dream. Exports are largely restricted to bulk dumping in Middle Eastern markets while brand development is encouraged for domestic markets. These brands can then go beyond national borders and claim a niche in the world market.

Agreeing to the argument that domestic brand development is necessary for claiming a share in international retail markets in the future, Shahzad Malik, one of the largest rice brand owners, is not much hopeful about the prospects. “The domestic market is overwhelmingly dominated by loose sales. There is hardly any quality consciousness for brands. Since brand development is an expensive exercise — entailing a huge and sustained media presence — traders avoid it because there is no premium on it. That is why one can count domestic rice brands on fingers.

One or two brands, which have emerged on the domestic scene in the last few years, are restricted to supplying to international chains like Metro or Hyperstar. Considering investment on brand development as expensive, they take the easy and short-term route of open sales to domestic markets, he said.

“Multiply the domestic expenses on brand development with the dollars exchange rate (140 at time of reporting) and one will know why no one has dared developing international brands,” said one member of Reap, who did not want to be named. Since no Pakistani brand has a direct share in the world retail market, almost all exports are dumped in Dubai for those who have the share and can buy it for repackaging and re-export. Translating this domestic success in foreign advantage needs policy space, planning, investment and sustained production, which is the missing link so far, he pointed out.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, April 8th, 2019

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