RANGOON — Shrinking global demand, poor infrastructure and hesitant investors could leave Burma far short of its rice export target this year, dealing a blow to its ambitions of competing with the world’s top shippers of the grain.
Industry experts and government officials say the 3 million-ton target for the current fiscal year ending March 2014 is unrealistic and Burma, the world’s top rice exporter under British rule in 1934, faces multiple hurdles in revamping an industry that withered during 49 years of military rule.
“It’s quite impossible to export 3 million tons of rice … simply because we can’t expect dramatic increase in rice production this year,” an expert at the Agriculture Ministry told Reuters, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.
Burma’s quasi-civilian government wants to utilize the abundant fertile land of the strategically located country.
Burma borders booming economic growth areas — India, China, Thailand, ASEAN — has sea ports in Indian ocean, and will have a deep sea port in Dawei that will allow shipments through a narrow stretch of the Thai peninsular to the Pacific ocean.
In terms of land, the Irrawaddy Delta is huge and fertile, and has big agricultural potential but lacks the infrastructure to boost production and exports.
Part of that is privatizing the rice industry, in line with a slew of reforms introduced since 2011, when a quasi-civilian government replaced a military junta that decimated an economy squeezed for two decades by Western sanctions, most of which are now suspended.
Burma generated $124 million from 320,000 tons of rice exported from April to July this year, Commerce Ministry data shows. It shipped 1.45 million tons of the grain in 2012/2013 and traders forecast about 1.5 million tons for 2013/2014.
The Agriculture Ministry official said water was the main source of the production problem, with either too much, or too little of it. Long-lasting floods had swamped paddy fields in the southern delta, while the summer crop in the central region was hit by low water levels in dams.
Burma has invited millers and exporters from neighboring Thailand, until recently the world’s biggest rice shipper, to bring expertise and capital to the industry, which exports just 41 percent of the amount it shipped at its peak 79 years ago.
Investors are hesitant however, like many foreign firms interested in Burma but frustrated by the protracted passage of new investment laws and unclear regulations on the agriculture sector, which is among several with restrictions.
Burma’s decades of poverty and isolation under the military have also left it with vastly underdeveloped infrastructure and a power grid unable to fully support even its biggest city – problems many foreign firms do not want to face.
“We’re concerned about energy and electricity, which are not quite stable at this stage,” Manas Kitprasert, president of the Thai Rice Millers Association, told Reuters. “We also need a better logistics system to export smoothly at manageable costs.”
According to traders, most of the rice Burma produces is the low quality 25-percent broken grain, about half of which is sold to neighboring China.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has forecast Burma rice production at 11 million tons in the 2013/2014 fiscal year, up from 10.6 million tons a year earlier, but only just above the 10.25 million tons expected to be consumed by the estimated 60 million people in Burma, where rice is the dietary staple.
That would leave a surplus of just 750,000 tons for export. Even if Burma manages to produce more rice in the next few years, it might not be able to find buyers for it.
Chit Khine, president of Burma Rice Industry Association said demand for Burma’s rice was flat while the world’s biggest exporters had plentiful rice stocks.
Players like Thailand, India and Vietnam, which have better quality grains than Burma, are struggling to sell because importing countries have grown more rice this year.
In addition, a government intervention scheme in Thailand has made its rice uncompetitive in the international market, resulting in massive stockpiles of unsold rice.
Thailand is sitting on rice stockpiles of 17 million tons, almost double a normal year’s exports and nearly half of annual global trade of 38 million. Thai 5 percent broken rice is trading around its lowest in three years.
“They’re well-stocked so we don’t expected to see any huge demand over the next few years,” said a Bangkok-based businessman who trades Burma rice.