Rice Armada Myth and reality

By Niyi Egbe

Have you heard the news? Come 2015, armada of Nigerian ships would be invading countries; happily they will not be armed with weapons of warfare but with cargoes of mercy - rice! Nigeria plans teaming up with the enviable League of Nations exporting rice. To drum it all to all and sundry that it means business, the Federal Government also plans closing the borders to the importation of the crop effectively from that year.

In government's view, it is time to do away with our wasteful disposition of importing the grain which is grown in several ecologies across the nation's arable lands. The decision is largely adjudged sane, especially where we take into consideration the huge capital flight that sustained importation of rice implies. Only recently, at an event that ended with signing a rice development initiative with Ogun State government, Minister for Agriculture and Natural Resources, Dr Akin Adesina disclosed that a whopping N365 billion is expended on importing the grain into Nigeria each year. This is uncomforting, considering the fact that the amount could nearly account for the budget of some four or five states in the country. To have the picture clearer, Lagos, Nigeria's commercial hub has N485.292 billion as its budget for 2012. How can this nation explain a situation where we fritter away over N360 billion annually on a food crop that we are not only capable of producing locally, but we could cultivate to the extent of gaining valuable foreign exchange from its export?

Rice, scientifically termed Oryza sativa isn't traditionally a popular Nigerian crop. The centres of origin of cultivated rice are the far eastern countries of Asia like India, Thailand, Myanmar and China. Another specie of rice, Oryza glaberrima also known as African rice is claimed to have been domesticated in the inland waters of the upper Niger basin as long as 2000 - 3000 years ago. However, over the years, rice which the Chinese classify among the five wugu or sacred crops (millet, wheat, hemp seed, rice and the legume - soybean) has grown to become enviable. It used to be a crop of status - afforded by the rich. Nowadays, rice has risen to an enviable level of being major staple visible in the foods of different cultures in modern Nigeria.

The production of rice has been encouraged by urbanization and the request of its inhabitants for convenient food – food on the go! Relative to other food crops, rice lends itself to a number of delicacies. Social events are deemed incomplete if they are not spice with rounds of assorted preparations of rice. Smart entrepreneurs and investors in the catering industry have identified these and are making good businesses with delicious rice preparations - obvious from the way restaurants and eateries keep mushrooming in our cities. Happily, there is some light brightening the tunnel. There is growing interest in the locally produced rice - ofada rice. For decades, Nigerian agriculturists had been stimulating interest in Ofada rice to no avail. They were deemed less attractive and in ignorance less nutritious than imported polished and most times stale alternatives. Today, the tides are turning for good. Nowadays, ofada rice draws premium prices in the eateries. They feature proudly at social events especially in the cities of south west Nigeria which historically have often influenced social adoption. Whatever circumstances helped foster the popularization of ofada rice has indeed done this nation much good. Discerning government agencies serious about rice production stimulation should exploit this opportunity to enshrine interest in the local rice. Aso rock should for instance demonstrate commitment by treating its numerous guests to ofada rice instead of Uncle Bens and its compatriots from Thailand.

Interestingly, there certainly were initial opportunities to build strong rice production and trading industries within an equally robust agricultural economy. Sadly, this was to be frustrated by the emergence of the petroleum industry. The relatively easier fortune being reaped from the black gold left in its wake, development of eccentric tastes. Instead of building a robust agricultural economy, the easier way was to expend gains from the petroleum industry on food imports.

The implications have been enormous. Local farmers have over the years been forced to eat the humble pie - apologetic over their presumably substandard local rice. Despite the drudgery that accompanies rice production, they still had to contend with discouragingly poor pay for their efforts. It is all too known that much like his contemporaries in other agro enterprises, there are a number of odds that afflict the Nigerian rice farmer. He has to contend with daunting socio-economic circumstances, environmental challenges – in mechanizing production, inadequate production technologies and tools, poor infrastructure, poor quality seeds, unaffordable input supplies, pest and diseases etc.

Odd enormous, despite the fact that the country has the potential to produce far beyond self sufficiency and export rice, production has been largely limited to rain fed production. This minimizes tonnages realizable from the country's production paddies. Thus, rather than having production from these paddies twice or thrice a year as is possible in irrigated lands and fadamas, there is only one copping regime in rain fed agriculture.

More frustrating, critical production inputs as improved seeds and soil nutrient enhancing fertilizers where available are either unaffordable or arrive late. Agricultural production is time sensitive. Where farmers miss seasons, a number of discouraging challenges emerge. Delayed production and application of production inputs definitely diminish productivity and thus profits from farming enterprises. Also, where bureaucratic bottlenecks frustrate farmers from accessing government subsidized inputs, their losses is gain to smart officials and business men who feed fat from the quagmire of inefficiencies.

Moving forward, there is need to revamp some of the internal strategies in the 1980s that attempted stemming the blind importation of the grain. The import controls introduced in the mid 1980s revealed as much that with controls, people can look beyond rice to available local substitutes. Even with leakages through smuggling, much foreign exchange was conserved by the will to check rice imports. Definitely, local food production gets stifled where imports flood markets, lowing gains from local fields and thus frustrating sustainable local production.

Next, there should be virile and sustainable strategies for extending the hectares of the nation's arable lands that are deployed to rice production. If there is the national will to obliterate rice importation, there necessarily has to exist, concomitant expansion of lands devoted to rice production. Relatively more of the extant arable lands would have to be devoted to rice production. Another reality is that unavoidably, virgin lands have to be opened up. In both circumstances, there has to be informed care in the management of soils and nutrients in order to extricate optimal production levels from the crop. For instance, crop production has to be done with care against jeopardizing top soils that make or mar successful agronomy. This scourge reasonably frustrated the Green Revolution prrogramme of the Shehu Shagari era.

There has to be aggressive rising of local production levels from the rice paddies of Abakaliki, the Niger - Benue trough, the Sokoto - Rima basin, the Fadamas of Kano and the northern savannahs. More of those arable lands have to be deployed to rice production. The production can be made possible through the local farmer, attraction of corporate Nigeria and foreign investors.

In similar stride, there should be careful attention to another crucial aspect of agro practice - ensuring that quality inputs are made available to farmers. Much like the computing parlance – garbage in garbage out, when you feed farm fields with poor quality seeds and similarly poor yield boosting inputs, what you get is poor yield. This could be quite discouraging in farming considering the relatively long wait before harvest, the drudgery and the added combat with natural and manmade challenges.

With improved highly productive quality seeds, farmers would obtain higher yields and garner optimal profits relative to inputs. This is crucial if their interest is to be sustained. There has to be sufficient support not only for the national seeds service but also for lots of private firms involved in the highly important and critical seed industry. The mid 1980s attracted several agro seed firms like UAC Agro seeds, Leventis seeds and Pioneer seeds. Most of these firms were quite valuable complements to the efforts of the National Seeds Service. They also played quite prominent liaison between farmers and the research stations. Researchers found in the era, opportunities to put their findings to test, with outcomes that were quite encouraging. These kinds of collaboration need be exploited.

We cannot escape large-scale agricultural production if we are going to have an armada of rice. Production at the large scale would allow for agro mechanization which makes it easier to produce in larger expanses. There would be quantum production relative to inputs. Production costs would be reduced as economies of scale and quantum procurement would allow for production discounts. Painfully, agro mechanization has been frustrated by the huge costs of machinery, a development from the inglorious era of currency devaluation of the late 1980s and beyond. The impact is visible for all to see. Agriculture was returned to the subsistent level. Across the country's agricultural fields exist, several dilapidated and abandoned farm machinery. The harsh economic clime simply frustrated maintenance of such machinery. Any wonder why the likes of Texaco, UAC, AG Leventis, Nigerian Breweries and scores of other blue chip organizations had to rationalize their adventures in agriculture.

Rice armada would be sustainable if there is good care to carefully manage peasant farmers who are the engine room of national agricultural production. They have weathered untold storms in keeping the nation fed. Their experiences need be harnessed and infused into the planned revamp. The agricultural sector engages about 60 percent of the national populace. It is quite fair to evolve policies that would foster the profitability of these benevolent farmers.

An exciting foreseeable gain from jigging rice production is massive employment, especially of the youths. Agriculture has for long been abandoned to the old and dying generation who certainly have no further strength and zeal to commit into the sector. Production surpluses would occasion exports, engender inflow of foreign currency which would be ploughed back into the sector - keeping it running. Also, there would emerge different rice processing plants that would add value to the grains for local consumption or for export. These would translate to increased economic activities.

Finally, there should be care to sustain whatever initiatives are now being put together for increased rice production. The agricultural sector has always paid dearly for policy summersaults and frequent changes of ministers which really frustrate. Stability and commitment of the part of government is crucial to the success of the dream rice armada.

Niyi Egbe, an Agriculturist and media practitioner lives in Lagos, Nigeria