Saturday, 27 June 2009

The travails of Nigerian Rice

One food that has become a major source of calories for the average Nigerian is rice. It is becoming difficult to find rice missing on the daily menu of most Nigerians or the refreshment list of important ceremonies such as wedding, naming ceremonies, wedding anniversaries, burial ceremonies, birthday parties and many others.
In Nigerian markets, both those in the rural and urban areas, rice is a major grocery that often occupies a conspicuous position. It knows no religion, and does not discriminate against any tribe or race in Nigeria. Both the Nigerian rich and poor eat it, though the contents of the preparation may be different. Nigerian traders, especially those who trade on it would be in a better position to know their margin of profit.
Rice can be grown over a wide range of ecological conditions, and is cultivated in virtually all the agro-ecological zones in Nigeria. Nigeria encompasses four major agro-ecological zones, with rainfall diminishing along a South-North gradient. The forest zone borders the coast in the South, and going northward gives way to the Guinea and Sudan Savannah. Nigeria’s North Eastern fringe falls within the Sahel zone.
Though rice contributes a significant proportion of the food requirements of the population, production capacity is far below the national requirements for rice. In order to meet the increasing demand for rice, Nigeria has had to resort to importation of milled rice to bridge the gap between domestic demand and supply. Nigeria’s rice import is paid for in foreign currency.
A combination of various factors seems to have triggered the structural increase in rice consumption. Like elsewhere, urbanization appears to be the most important cause of the shift in consumer preferences towards rice in Nigeria. Rice is easy to prepare compared to other traditional cereals, thereby reducing the chore of food preparation and fitting more easily in the urban lifestyles of rich and poor alike. Rice indeed is no longer a luxury food in Nigeria and has become a major staple food for many households.
Demand for rice in Nigeria is, however, growing faster than for any other major staples, with consumption broadening across all socio-economic classes, including the poor. Substitution of rice for coarse grains and traditional roots and tubers has fuelled growth in demand at an annual rate of 5.6 per cent between 1961 and 1992. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had in 2003 projected growth in rice consumption for Nigeria beyond year 2000 to remain as high as 4.5 per cent per annum.
Nigerians have been identified to consume about 5.4 million metric tons of rice annually (valued at $9.2 billion at current prices), while local production only amounts to about 2.3 million metric tons per year, and that the remaining 3.1 million metric tons is imported, making Nigeria the second largest importer of rice in the world.
The key problems facing the rice production in Nigeria has been identified to consist of lack of competitiveness resulting from low and uneconomic productivity, poor access to expensive inputs (especially fertilizers and credit), low capacity to meet quality standards and little or no encouragement of private sector participation. Also, increasing changes in rainfall patterns as a result of climate change is already threatening local rice cultivation and making it pretty difficult to plough rice fields after the very first rain or make multiple harvests in one year.

The resulting harvest shrinkage and diminishing income, is further exacerbated by endemic water mismanagement and inappropriate land use by farmers which have led to massive soil erosion and loss of the soil’s productive capacity. Also, limited potential for dry season rice cultivation through soil and water conservation, and the non-employment of rain water harvesting technologies have continued to widen the increasing demand-supply gap for rice. The consequence is threatened food security and livelihood for hundreds of local rice farmers in Nigeria.

Generally, food production in sub – Saharan Africa is prone to multiple risks since it is based on rain – fed systems hence imposing the onerous challenge of producing adequate food on developing countries to satisfy her growing population. This has contributed immensely to a widening gap between food supply and demand However, efforts in the present problematic rain fed agricultural production need to be complemented through dry season farming. This is absolutely necessary because the productive realm of the small scale producer needs expansion to infuse higher productivity. Then may then query what has happened to the fadamas?

In a frail attempt to reverse this trend, the Olusegun Obasanjo’s government had initiated some “farmer-friendly policies” under the Presidential Initiative on Rice. One of such policies was the high import tariffs on imported milled rice. But the crumbling of that initiative very shortly after the end of the tenure of that government exposed the weaknesses or sincerity of those behind it.
With less than one year in office President Umaru Yar'Adua and the 36 state governors at an emergency meeting in Abuja, had decided to import 500,000 tonnes of rice up to a value of US$600 million from Thailand to curtail the effect of the global rise in food prices on Nigeria.
According to the then governor of Ondo State, Olusegun Agagu; "The whole essence of this importation in the short term is to create availability and reduce the skyrocketing prices," He further said: "We cannot say there is famine in Nigeria yet, but the prices of foodstuffs are going up and availability in a number of places is diminishing," During the period of that announcement, the price of a bag of rice on markets in Nigeria had doubled and tripled to between US$85 and US$102. Nigerian traders were reported to have bought stocks of rice and grains from around the West and Central Africa region. The government imported rice was to be sold around US$50 per 50kg bag.But Ahmed Rabiu, then vice president of Kano Chamber of Commerce, in an interview had dismissed the massive import order as senseless. According to him : "It would have taken a minimum of three months to import and distribute the rice to the people that needed it and by then many farmers will have started harvesting their crops which will make the import worthless," However, one week later, that is after the initial decision to import rice, the Agriculture Minister Abba Sayyadi Ruma rescinded the import decision and instead approved the investment of US$85 million in a credit scheme meant to support local rice processing as part of measures to attain food sufficiency. The government also suspended duties on rice imports for six months and ordered the release of 11,000 metric tonnes of grains from its strategic food reserves for sale at one-sixth its market value. Sabo Nanono, head of Kano chapter of Nigeria's commercial farmers union had said the decision to invest in the domestic agriculture sector was the right one, even though it will not achieve as much populist enthusiasm as the rice imports. He estimated that Nigeria has conditions favourable enough to become a net exporter of rice, given the right tools, seeds and irrigation. According to him: "It is a wise decision that the government reversed the idea of importing the rice" Nigeria, a former agrarian nation, abandoned agriculture in the early 1980s when the government refocused the economy on oil exploration, which now accounts for more than 90 per cent of total government revenue. Sadly, the bulk of this revenue is stolen by politicians and their cronies. The consequence is that today, according to the agriculture ministry, 91 million Nigerians representing 65 percent of the country's population are food insecure.

As noted earlier, rice is grown across the 6 geopolitical or 4 ecological zones of Nigeria. In the east, Uboma is the major rice producing community in Imo State. The community is noted for its lowland rice fields, the biggest in the entire state. Rice here are transplanted or seeded directly in the soil on level to slightly sloping fields with variable depth and duration of flooding depending on rainfall. Most of these farms are located mainly along the flooded valleys of the Imo River. Most of the rice farms are privately owned as they are cultivated in private family lands. Rice farmers tend to be small-scale, with farms of 1-2 ha.

It is however sad that instead of giving these farmers the maximum support they need, both the Imo state and the Ihitte Uboma local government council have preferred to fuddle at the expense of such important crop. Policy somersault and inconsistencies have continued to undermine the genuine efforts of the rice farmers to produce enough rice for everybody.
Instead of genuine assistance in form of extension programs and micro-finance or credit facilities the Udenwa administration (1999-2007) was contented in manual distributing of unsustainable items like rain coats, boots, hoe and shovel to the farmers. The road project planned to run from the Umuahia-Owerri road to Isinweke to the rice farms in Onicha Uboma was abandoned, while no attempt was made to rehabilitate the rice mills.

Since after the expiration of the Udenwa misrule, the new government led by Ikedi Ohakim is yet to define his strategies for the rice fields in Uboma. What we now hear is that Governor Ikedi Ohakim has guaranteed the sum of N1 billion to the privately owned Cooperative Federation of Imo State to import about two million bags, of 100,000 metric tons of rice to Imo State.According to Rev. Dr, Geoffrey Maduabuchi Samuel, who is the President of the Cooperative Federation of Imo State, the shipment would commence in May 2009 and will run till December 2009. He posited that because of the guarantee given by Governor Ohakim, cooperative federation of Imo has stationed one of its officials in Thailand for the past three months to supervise the processing of the guarantee, bagging, loading and shipment of the consignment. What a shame?

Why not invest or guarantee such a lump sum in rice fields in Uboma and parts of Aro Ndizogu? Sadly, it is misplaced priorities on crucial issues like this that have constituted a clog in the development and expansion of the many rice fields and other crops in Nigeria. In the words of Alhaji Sabo Nanono, “Nigeria has conditions favourable enough to become a net exporter of rice, given the right tools, seeds and irrigation” But, kindly, the NGO-Rural Africa Water Development Project (RAWDP) is today in partnership with the rice farmers is designing an improvement program that will be beneficial to all parties. The outcome, if successful will be cheery.

{Please note that references have been cited for this work, and You may contact the author directly on to get the list}

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