The past weeks have witnessed a strenuous campaign for the purchase and consumption of locally produced rice in Ghana. Mooted by the country’s leading media outlet Citi FM, the campaign has gained traction as the political class joined in the advocacy, given it an aura of legitimacy. The ensuing advocacy has extended into a broader conversation for the consumption of made in Ghana products. If sustained, the campaign can potentially revolutionize Ghana’s agricultural sector, which grew at 5.5 percent.

Despite its appeal, the campaign has so irked rice importers and a section of corporate Ghana that they have taken steps to halt it in its tracks. A few days after its launch, some rice importers withdrew all their advertisements on Citi FM and canceled all contracts with OMNI Media, the station’s parent company.

Ghana experienced a significant rice glut in this final quarter with over 60,000 maxi bags of excess rice grains left in the open at the Fumbisi Rice Valley. Over US$330 million worth of rice is imported annually. The appetite for foreign-imported rice, a decades-long phenomenon, has closed any avenues that existed for local rice industry growth.  Local producers are confronted with the twin challenges of competition from imported rice brands and inaccessibility to a market already saturated by foreign rice.

While we are quick to decry the role of importers in stifling the growth of the sector, we perhaps should shift the conversation to government indecision and policy failures that somehow privileges imported goods to locally produced ones. The disconnect between the government’s implementation of the Planting for Food and Jobs policy and the realities of the market leaves much to be desired. On the one hand, the initiative has ensured the production of vast amounts of rice; on the other hand, it failed to enact a corresponding policy that provides ready markets for the produce.

It is trite to pin down this challenge to the general lack of interests by the Ghanaian in locally made goods.  However, it is more productive to flesh out and adopt policies that favour infant industries. After all, pretty much of the developed world today had gone the path of protectionism to give its local industries the needed oxygen for growth. As Ha-Joon Chang lays out in “Kicking Away the Ladder,” the economic prosperity of western powers was largely anchored on government regulation and protectionists policies. It is ironic and perhaps intriguing, that these countries are shoehorning free trade and structural adjustments as the magical wand for Africa’s development. Let’s leave it here for another time.

But rather than serving us with hackneyed sermons on consuming local rice and made in Ghana products, can the government get its acts right? First, and most importantly, it must ensure that only local rice brands are served in state/official functions. It must provide a ready and friendly market for made in Ghana rice, and it must go out of its way to subsidize local farmers. Finally, it must place tariffs on rice imports to deter the almost immoderate appetite for and purchase of imported rice. History is yet to document a country that conquered poverty using free trade as a weapon.

As the debate rages and the campaign strides on, we must not underestimate the vast potential of a vibrant local economy. For every local rice purchased and consumed, a job is created at home, and for every imported rice purchased, capital is injected into an economy elsewhere. This reality must not be lost on us.