In this report, KUNLE FALAYI takes a look at the enormous impact of Nigeria’s huge food import bill which deprives farmers of the capacity to cultivate Nigeria’s large expanse of agricultural land
In the lush jungle of Okada, a university town 48 kilometres north-west of Benin, the Edo State capital and seat of one of Nigeria’s most revered monarchs – Oba of Benin, Omo N’ Oba Ewuare II, much of the local residents live on agriculture for work and food.
In this part of Nigeria’s south, known for its rich agricultural land, life is a daily drudgery of trekking over several kilometres to till tiny portions of farms amidst a vast jungle of greenery.
But Okada has a particular peculiarity. It is Edo State’s rice cultivation headquarters. At least, that was the town’s reputation. The local population of the town’s 17 villages are predominantly farmers, Saturday PUNCH learnt.
It is a short journey from Benin through an expressway that is flanked by expanse of land as far as the eyes can see.
The jungle here spreads across the horizon like a sacred grove; vast, green and pristine.
But Saturday PUNCH learnt that this is not an expanse of sacred grove nor a forest reserve. It is just a large area of agricultural land no one wishes to cultivate.
A turn at Okada Junction, a hub of commercial buses and traders, takes one straight for another 15 minutes past the Igbinedion University to the centre of Okada town.
But to get to a rice farm, which our correspondent had been directed to, it was necessary to take a motorcycle ride through a rugged road that thinned into a footpath snaking through overhanging trees.
This particular rice farm, jointly owned by Mr. Peter Andrew and a few other farmers who banded together to form a rice farmers’ association, is six hectares. It might be small compared to the expanse of land in which it stood. But for these farmers, it is their blood and sweat.
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Andrew said he had cultivated rice for the past 15 years.
It is the most tedious form of farming he had ever engaged in, he said. But he has kept on going because rice is Nigeria’s most important food item.
Andrew; on his group rice farm at Okada, Edo State
A nation with huge appetite but low capacity
As a huge rice consuming nation, rice farmers like Andrew say they should be rich.
But despite the fact that Nigeria is the 11th highest consumer of rice in the world with an annual consumption volume of seven million metric tonnes, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, local farmers continue to suffer lack of capacity in production.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation put the country’s estimated production capacity at 2.8 million MT in 2016. The figure range is also corroborated by the United States Department of Agriculture, which puts it at 2.7 million MT.
In November 2016, the Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh, announced that rice production level had reached 3.5 million metric tonnes.
Meanwhile, the huge gap in supply is still enough to make Nigeria the second largest importer of the commodity in the world and number one in Africa.
The nation spends N646bn ($1.8bn) on rice importation annually at an average of $5m per day according to Ministry of Agriculture’s statistics, which the minister, Audu Ogbeh, has admitted is unsustainable.
Beyond rice, the country spends N7.9tn ($22bn) on the import of various types of food annually, the Minister of State for Agriculture and Rural Development, Senator Heineken Lokpobiri, said in 2016. To put this in contrast, Nigeria’s 2017 budget is N7.4tn ($20.2bn).
Meanwhile, the Federal Government has promised self-sufficiency in rice production in the country by the end of 2017.
World’s top rice consuming nations
Andrew told Saturday PUNCH that in the past, he and his group of farmer colleagues cultivated up to 30 hectares of rice annually. But gradually, as Nigerians favoured foreign rice, profit from local rice went down.
“This year is the lowest we have ever cultivated because it is becoming hard to put energy and resources into a farm that would yield little profit. When you remove the labour costs from the sales, you realise there is hardly any profit.
“There is no way you would convince Nigerians to buy your expensive locally produced rice even when it is nutritious and healthy. They would always prefer the imported rice that is cheaper.
“We sell to few Nigerians who still value and can afford the locally produced rice. Many Nigerians eat mere chaff in the name of imported rice but what choice do people have when they cannot afford the expensive local ones we produce? But on the other hand, what choice do we too have in determining how expensive our rice is when we know how much it costs us to cultivate?
“The money Nigeria spends in importing rice and other foods, if half of it goes to developing agriculture in Nigeria, people like us would feed this nation.
“For people like us, the different incentives government has put in place for farmers are just mere words. When we try to key into any one of those incentives, we see that the measures put in place to access such funds are such that the common Nigerians cannot get there.”
Local farmers lament amidst rice revolution successes
The Federal Government started its “rice revolution” initiatives three years ago aimed at ramping up production and gradually steering the country towards self-sufficiency.
The Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development says the revolution had in recent months registered successes that increased rice production.
One of the schemes put in place to make this happen is the Central Bank of Nigeria’s Anchor Borrowers’ Programme with a funding base of N220bn which stakeholders in the areas of input, fertiliser supply, seedling supply and farmers can access.
The programme has so far yielded 2.1million metric tonnes of rice, the CBN says.
The Bank of Industry also makes loans available to farmers but many local players like Andrew lament the inaccessibility of these schemes at the grass roots level.
Cultivating Nigeria’s vast agricultural land with simple tools
In many local rice farms visited like those at Okada, experiences of farmers interacted with are a far cry from the rosy picture painted of the industry.
Many of these farmers have never had access to machines beyond simple farm tools. For most of them, the entire process from planting to harvesting is done by hand.
But why is it difficult to access machines like tractors and harvesters?
One of the Okada rice farmers, Mr. Itorobong Udofia, shared an experience that illustrated how hard it is for local farmers to access machines for use in their farms.
In March 2017, as the rice planting season began, he and his colleagues approached the Federal Ministry of Agriculture office in Edo State to hire a bulldozer to clear their land.
“The ministry officials told us that the bulldozers were in the custody of a contractor, who hired it out to farmers on behalf of the ministry. To hire a bulldozer, we were to pay the contractor N150,000 ($412) per day. Apart from that, we were required to pay the driver for his day’s work and also fuel the bulldozer,” he said.
The farmers ended up paying some youths to clear up a smaller area of the land than they intended with the use of cutlasses. They could not afford the cost implication of expanding their farm.
“Everybody is running away from agriculture today because it involves much labour and less profit. The youths want white collar jobs because using your hands to work in a farm is far from appealing,” Udofia said.
At over 50 years old, as the man worked, it was obvious there was little his strength and the cutlass he was holding would allow him to do.
He got emotional when he spoke further, lamenting how much people now eat food produced outside Nigeria while Nigeria’s millions of farmers suffer.
He said, “We have more than enough farmers in Nigeria. It is painful to see that what we could produce ourselves are being brought in from outside the country.
“How can this country progress when we are depending on food produced from other countries? We continue to cultivate rice because we don’t want to be idle.
“For local producers like us, lack of machinery and ability to parboil and remove sands work against the rice we produce.
“Nobody wants to eat rice and eat stone with it in this age. But what is the government doing to ensure the establishment of rice production value chain which is accessible to every farmer?
“Right now, it is so bad that many farmers still have to pound their harvested rice to remove the husk because of lack of access to machinery to mill it.”
One of the rice farms our correspondent visited is owned by Mr. Adeyemi Amao, in Asipa Ilao Village in Ogun State.
Despite the fact that his rice farm is at least more than 280 kilometres away from those at Okada, they share the same challenges.
On Amao’s 13-hectare rice farm, our correspondent met three women who were hard at work, armed with sickles and harvesting the rice.
When each woman had harvested and filled a 30kg-bag, she called it a day and was paid for that day’s work.
Amao asked for a sickle and joined in the harvesting. He pleaded with the women to be careful in order to minimise the waste which looked inevitable as the seeds shook to the ground while being handled.
This sort of manual process is one of the biggest challenges of rice cultivation for local farmers, Amao told Saturday PUNCH.
A graduate of the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Amao said he cultivated his 13 hectares of rice farm with all his savings because he could not access any loan.
“If I get loans and access to machinery, I would have loved to expand this farm by three folds.”
He still faces the challenge of making his harvest profitable.
To cut down on the cost of production, Amao hires cheap labourers from across the border.
“I hire labourers from Cotonou, Benin Republic, who come into the country legally to work for me. They stay on the farm through the planting season and I pay them by buying motorcycles for them when they leave,” he said.
He believes that food sufficiency cannot be achieved in Nigeria when the government focuses all its incentives on big companies, who produce food in large quantity for export.
Amao and one of the workers on his 13-hectare rice farm at Asipa Ilao, Ogun State
This is an opinion shared by Professor of Agricultural Economics and Farm Management, Idris Ayinde, of the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta.
Prof. Ayinde told our correspondent that the government is making a mistake of providing incentives to large farm owners leaving out the local farmers.
“Over 70 per cent of agricultural output from Nigeria, which is consumed in Nigeria is produced by local farmers.
“This is because the large scale farmers rarely sell in Nigeria. They sell to other countries within and outside the continent. There should be full rural development, roads and electricity and communication facilities, storage and processing factories.
“Farmers are ready to work if only the government is willing to come to their aid. The only place where agriculture is working is in the North, which has a less fertile land than the South, with abundant resources.”
With the manual process involved in the cultivation of local farms like those of Azeez in Ogun State and Andrew and his colleagues in Edo State, experts believe it is less likely that Nigeria would ever optimise its wasting agricultural land.
Unfortunately, as land wastes away in Edo State and other states known for massive rice cultivation in the past like Ekiti State (known for its Igbemo rice) and Ogun State (known for its Ofada rice) among others, drug cartels are moving in, converting the lands for the cultivation of cannabis.
A 2016 findings by our correspondent revealed that much of the land in Ekiti and Edo states that could be used for rice cultivation are now being used to grow cannabis, making the two states the largest producers of the weed in the country.
How large is Nigeria’s wasting agricultural land?
Nigeria has a total land area of 92 million hectares or 923,768 square km. Out of this, 77.7 per cent or 72 million hectares is agricultural land.
Unfortunately, due to the neglect agriculture has suffered over the years as a result of massive importation of food, only 34 million hectares of Nigeria’s 72 million hectares of agricultural land is cultivated, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation.
The remaining 38 million hectares of agricultural land wasting away is the same size as the total landmass of Zimbabwe (38 million hectares). It is larger than the landmass of Japan (36 million hectares), Germany (34 million hectares) and Malaysia (32 million hectares).
With a landmass of 10 million hectares, Benin Republic through which a massive amount of rice is smuggled into Nigeria on a daily basis, can fit into Nigeria’s wasting agricultural land more than three times.
All over Africa, arable land wastes away as the FAO estimates that 60 per cent of the world’s uncultivated land is in Africa. Experts say this is one of the major threats to achieving the No. 2 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger and creating food security.
Wasting land: What can N646bn rice import bill do?
Findings suggest that the N646bn Nigeria spends on buying foreign rice annually will cultivate at least 1.6 million hectares of the country’s wasting agricultural land.
Local farmers told Saturday PUNCH that to cultivate 10 hectares of land from clearing, planting through to harvest and finishing of the rice, one would need about N4m.
“N4m (N400,000 per hectare) for 10 hectares of land would do if the production is well managed and not left in the hands of someone who does not know much about rice cultivation and production,” Azeez said.
Vice President of the Rice Farmers’ Association of Nigeria, Mr. Segun Atho, corroborated this but offered more explanation.
He said, “The price varies depending on the region. If you look at what is obtainable in the northern part of the country, it is different from the south where farmers contend with thick forest.
“In the south, farmers need between N300,000 and N500,000 to cultivate rice per hectare of land depending on their needs.
“In the South, the state governments are not subsidising rice production especially in the area of mechanisation. If you employ manual labour, by the time you put everything together from minor equipment, herbicides and fertilisers, workmanship and post-harvest processing, you discover you are spending between N300,000 and N500,000 on each hectare,” he said.
At an average of N400,000 per hectare and N4m on 10 hectares of land, N646bn will cultivate 1.6 million hectares of rice.
Confusing figures of growth in rice industry
Experts say Nigeria has indeed made some improvement in rice production over the last few months.
Reports suggest that there has been gradual increase in national production through efforts like the LAKE Rice partnership between Lagos and Kebbi states, increase in rice production in many states in the north like Kano, Nasarawa and Plateau, while Ebonyi State is believed to take the lead in cultivation down south.
But in May, a Director of Agriculture at the Kano office of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Muhammad Adamu, said production of local rice had increased to 15 million MT, double the consumption volume.
The Rice Farmers’ Association of Nigeria disproved this, estimating that national production volume has increased to 5.8 million metric tonnes in 2017 while consumption has increased to 7.9 million MT.
Earlier in February, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media, Garba Shehu, also claimed that Nigeria had become the second largest producer of rice globally, a claim strongly criticised by experts, forcing him to backtrack on his claim.
Finding a solution to wasting land
Mr. Atho of RIFAN told Saturday PUNCH that most of the improvement in rice production in the country were recorded in the North, a part of the country’s less fertile land.
According to him, this is attributable to the fact that the state governments in the region have developed mechanised farming to some extent.
According to him, to put the expanse of fertile land in the South to use, the state governments must go beyond lip service to providing machines for the clearing of forest and tractors for use in farms.
Ayinde explained that the amount of agricultural land wasting away in the country is really an unfortunate waste of resources.
He said, “The universities of agriculture in the country are churning out graduates yearly. But when you ask them where they want to work, they say the banking industry or multinational companies,” the don said.
According to him, tackling the problem of agriculture in Nigeria starts with ensuring that banks employ only those who studied banking and finance while graduates of agriculture only are employed in the agricultural sector.
He explained that mechanisation and development of infrastructure in the rural areas would rejuvenate rice production at the local level.
Ayinde said, “Saying one is a farmer is like being denigrated in the society. It has been left in the hands of the aging population. A recent study reported that there is a medium aging population in the country.
“By 2055, all the farmers in the rural area would only be old people because all the young age groups are moving to the urban areas.
“We have the land and the government is aware. For instance, in Ogun State, the government announced that people have access to 10,000 hectares of land for agriculture but if you look at the requirements for accessing the land, you will realise a budding farmer would find it difficult. The cost of the annual lease alone is a problem for any farmer.
“Apart from incentives, farmers need adequate storage facilities and processing knowledge. For instance, when you harvest cassava, it goes bad after a few days if you do not process it.
“This is why cassava is subject to the Cobweb Theorem – a situation where a glut this year makes farmers to be disillusioned and not produce the following year and when there is low price that following year, prices increase. When this happens, farmers would be encouraged to produce again and this would cause a situation where there would be so much cassava in the market that price would go down.”
The Managing Director, Agro Nigeria, Mr. Richard Mbaram, believes that private sector has a lot to do in improving rice production in the country.
“Importing food and abandoning local production is being penny wise and pound foolish because you are exporting jobs. You deprive your economy of a lot of benefits as a result of this.
“The farmers that could have been empowered would certainly have empowered their households and employed people within their rural communities.”
He said putting in place incentives for farmers would kill two birds with one – improve agriculture and reduce rural-urban drift.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbeh, has however insisted that the government is giving many incentives to farmers in the country.
Ogbeh attributed much of the challenges faced by local farmers to Nigeria’s unbridled taste for foreign foods.
He assured that he would force a reduction in the price of the commodity, while appealing to farmers to reduce the price of a tonne of paddy rice from N150,000 to N120,000 to make it affordable for millers.
“Our rice is safer, tastier and healthier than the foreign ones. Nigerians should embrace local products and stop importation of useless things. We are a country that has penchant for importation without exporting anything. We import champagnes, cookies, toilet papers and even toothpicks. We have this taste for foreign products. This is killing us, it is killing our economy,” he said on Tuesday, August 29 in Ibadan.