Red rice or white rice in Madagascar?

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Red rice or white rice in Madagascar?


Nanjala Nyabola writes about the changeable, and often very high cost of local basic food in Madagascar.

The Economist magazine invented its famous Big Mac Index to find the exchange rate between two currencies. If a Big Mac burger in MacDonalds costs a dollar in the US and three kronor in Sweden (a third difference) but the actual exchange rate is 50 per cent, then it means that the dollar is overvalued.

The Big Mac index shows how much money people spend on food and that tells us a lot about a society. I was in Madagascar in January 2019. How much rice and what kind of rice Madagascar eats is a very good example of how the price of basic food can tell the story of a nation.

People say there are more than 40,000 varieties of rice and every continent and subcontinent has a variety right for its environment. In the markets of Madagascar you find three general types: imported oryza rice from Thailand and Indonesia, local oryza rice, and local red rice known as vary gasy.

Red rice is not the same as brown rice. It has no husk and it is milled similarly to white rice but the red colour comes from the pigment anthocyanin. Unlike white rice, red rice has a rich, nutty flavour. That means that it doesn’t go well with everything and often needs serving with butter or ghee to help the natural flavour.

Rice is the basic food in Madagascar. It is an island with a very different culture influenced equally by indigenous, African, and Asian society. Most Malagasy people eat rice three times a day, often only with water. This means Madagascar is a big market for the Asian rice exports.

But milled white rice is not very nutritious and it is at least 90 per cent carbohydrates. This partly explains Madagascar’s terrible rates of malnutrition. The World Bank says over half of Madagascar’s children under five are badly malnourished. There is plenty of food in most of the island but not much is good for the body.

The popularity of Asian white rice tells us about life after colonialism. French colonization saw more imported products than indigenous products. People think imported white rice is better quality, and that red rice is for the poor. It is strange that, until recently, imported white rice was cheaper than local red rice. This is because it is cheaper to import a lot of white rice and there is less and less interest in growing and buying red rice.

But with a growing domestic crisis over the 2018 presidential election, importing white rice is now more expensive. For the first time in recent history red rice is more and more popular. I spoke to a few traders in Antananarivo and they told me more and more people want red rice. But because so few farmers were growing it, the price of red rice has increased too.

The changing price of local basic food because of global markets happens around the world. In Madagascar it’s red rice, but in other places it’s cassava, millet, sorghum, or local varieties of potatoes. A result of colonization was that people preferred imported Western food and not stronger, adaptable indigenous or local foods. I think this suggests that decolonizing African food is an important part of decolonization to create strong and representative societies.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)