The Nigerian Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbeh, announced that the government will shut the border with an unnamed neighbouring state which he accused of illegally importing rice to Nigeria. Nigeria consumes rice in quantity; even as one of the largest producers, it is also one of the largest importers of rice in the world. In 2016, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation stated that Nigeria imported 2.3 million metric tonnes of rice which was about half of the country’s estimated requirement in that period. In 2018, the minister of Agriculture announced that the total demand for the staple in the country is at about 5.5 million metric tonnes (MT) per year of which 3.3 million MT is produced locally leaving 2.3 million MT to be imported.
Rice is classified as either Asian or African with the botanical names of Oryza sativa and Oryza glaberrima respectively. The staple is a cereal grain that grows in swampy areas, in regions with high rainfall but can still be grown in areas with little rainfall through the use of water-controlling terrace system. The grain is sensitive and requires a lot of care and attention to grow well. The cultivation can be done by transplanting or direct seeding, the seeds are sprayed onto the soil after which it is ploughed into the soil by using plough. Prior to cultivation the rice seeds in soaked in water for 34 hours (1 day 10 hours) and allow to dry for 24 hours then it is ready for planting, what a process! It takes about 4 months or 6 months for the grains planted to be ready for harvest, depending on the soil type and other climatic factors. The rice is harvested by cutting the stalk directly beneath the heads and the grains separated from the stalk by a mechanised thresher.
Shutting down the Nigerian border to hinder the importation of rice will encourage more smuggling of it. The country is clamouring for self-sufficiency in rice production, the federal government hopes to reduce the importation bill of rice to 95% and likewise rice farmers by an appreciable amount. To achieve self-sufficiency is applaudable but like they say, Rome is not built in a day, a process is required.
The Central Bank of Nigeria gave small scale farmers grants and soft loans to ensure there is increase in productivity but there are many other factors that need to be considered apart from the funds being disbursed. Some farmers do not even have access to the funds and had to get loans with high interest rates from commercial banks and those that were lucky experienced a great bottleneck in administrations and protocols.
In the words of the Managing Director of AgroNigeria, Richard Mbaram: achieving self-sufficiency in the next couple of years is merely a pipe dream. Rice production is not willed into existence, it is cultivated and systematically sown. There is research, there is mechanisation, there is warehousing and storage. There is market opening and market access. You cannot drive industrialisation or agro-industrialisation without connecting the farm gate where the production is happening. Do we have that? We are far back in terms of achieving that.
Of a truth, the threats will only lead to more smuggling if the country can not achieve self-sufficiency as and when due. The country has achieved progress in rice processing so far, there has been increase in the local production of rice and the importation of rice has been reduced. The number of rice mills (both integrated and cottage) have increased by more than 50% as the government and the private sector continue to make more investment in processing. Such success is worth applauding, but the government has more to achieve to reduce rice importation and drive into self-sufficiency. Whatever way anyone views the progress so far, what to note is that the journey is still far, there needs to be more strategic plans to be injected into the rice processing industry to improve the value. The industry needs more human resource, technology (irrigation, biotechnology etc) and financing.
The challenges disrupting the industry range from sub-optimal processing capacities, insufficient storage facilities, unavailability of quality inputs to other production enhancing infrastructure. The rice processing sector can also be more valued beyond mere raw rice being processed and packaged. There are numerous chain values that can be judiciously added to the staple, like rice flour which is made from ground raw rice.
Just like Thailand and US, the country can make rice milk and this can serve lactose intolerant people in the country. What about rice bran oil? It is an oil extracted from the rice bran and rice germ; it is highly rich in vitamin E, other antioxidants and various plant sterols. The oil can be used for cooking and also to dress salad.
It is high time the government added more value to agricultural produces and move from rudiments to high technological implements. It is time to bring out the quality in our farm produce, no more ‘unleavened’ produces. Nigeria can achieve self-sufficiency in food production, we have the lands, we have the resources, the people are available; they just need incentives, advanced technologies, trainings and also the after harvest period need to be put into consideration. It is not yet uhuru for the closure of borders to prevent illegal rice importation in Nigeria if the strategics plans are not rolled out.