DAKAR (Reuters) - Rice, the daily staple shared in family and communal food bowls across West Africa, risks becoming a luxury as rocketing price rises squeeze the pockets and stomachs of the region's people.
Prices for the commodity have soared this year, part of a wave of increases for major food cereals which humanitarian experts say is a threatening a "silent tsunami" of hunger and increased hardship for the world's poor, especially in Africa.
Fanned by the price hikes, food riots have flared like a trail of gunpowder through West Africa, sending governments scrambling to curb food exports, ease taxes on imports and increase subsidies for basic staples.
West African leaders are also dusting off often-delayed plans to boost domestic food farming, long sacrificed to imports.
From Nouakchott to Ouagadougou and N'Djamena and further south in Lagos and Kinshasa, ordinary West Africans are feeling the impact on tight daily budgets of more expensive rice -- multiplied by higher costs of fuel and other basic staples.
"It's really tough. The kilogram of rice that I used to buy for 300 CFA francs ($0.73) now costs 350 CFA. Since everything else has gone up as well, you can't make ends meet any more," said Odile Zongo, a domestic worker in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou.
Eric Hazard, Oxfam International's regional campaign manager for economic justice in West Africa, said most ordinary people in the region were already spending between 50 to 80 percent of their income on food, so the price spikes were really hurting.
"Those living on the edge are particularly vulnerable to these high food prices," Hazard told Reuters.
In Senegal, which with Nigeria and Ivory Coast is among the world's top rice importers, the increases threaten to put the traditional midday rice meal out of reach of the poor.
"It's difficult, because rice is the base of all our dishes. We eat it with fish, meat and chicken," said Nafissatou Ndiaye, who runs a canteen kitchen serving 50 customers a day in Dakar.
"I already had to put prices up. I don't dare do it again, because I'll lose my clients," she said, pointing to the pink 25 kg bags of "Thai Flavour" imported rice that she buys locally.
Rice from Thailand, the world's top exporter, has more than doubled in price this year. Experts point to a cocktail of factors, from export curbs in major producing states and rising demand to high fuel costs and erratic weather hitting harvests.
Ndiaye said the price of a 25 kg bag of Thai rice had risen to nearly 7,000 CFA francs from 6,000 CFA francs last year. The hike is not as sharp as it could be, as people are shielded from the full impact by official subsidies costing the Senegalese government several hundred million dollars.
Elsewhere in West Africa, the rises have been even sharper.
In Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo's capital, a 25 kg bag of rice that cost $15 in November now sells for $25.
The higher costs are forcing many Africans to either reduce their rice consumption, or to change their diets.
"People are eating more foufou (manioc paste), pondu (manioc leaves) or bread. They're eating what's cheapest," said Jean Fatuma, who sells imported rice in Kinshasa's Gambela market.
Some consumers in the region said they would be forced to cut back the family food intake to just one meal a day.
"I cannot feed myself even though I am working for the state," said James Arthur William, a Sierra Leone civil servant.
Although the world's poorest continent is no stranger to famines, the rocketing food price inflation has set off alarm bells at the United Nations and humanitarian agencies.
The U.N. World Food Programme says it could push 100 million people into hunger. The U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, has called the trend "silent mass murder."
Many West African governments, seeing their people take to the streets to protest the high cost of living, have moved to try to offset the effects of the soaring commodity prices.
Burkina Faso's government has suspended customs duties on rice imports for six months. Mali has also lifted taxes on rice imports, while Guinea has banned exports of food and livestock.
The food price shock has also jolted governments into reviving shelved plans to increase local food production.
"The investment in agriculture in Africa has been really low in the last 20-25 years ... so maybe this is an opportunity to switch and go to a new scenario where agriculture will be put at the top of the development agenda," Oxfam's Hazard said.
Senegal, which imports more than 80 percent of its rice needs, announced an ambitious plan last week to increase its current rice production five-fold to 500,000 tonnes in a season. "There will be no famine here," said President Abdoulaye Wade.
Last week, he called international food aid a "huge swindle," saying many non-governmental organizations made a "business" out of hunger.
Liberia is signing over fresh land to commercial rice production and Nigeria says it will promote year-round farming.
Guinea, the world's leading exporter of bauxite, has held talks with Malaysia about exchanging minerals for rice.
But as pressure on their purses also reaches their stomachs, many ordinary Africans may act before their governments.
"If this carries on, we'll all be going back to our villages to grow food," said Guinean civil servant Mariam Diallo.
Editing by Sara Ledwith