Against the backdrop of the high cost of the local rice and its supply shortage, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) says Nigeria’s rice import will rise this year by 9 per cent to 2.4 million metric tonnes. Excerpts by PAUL OGBUOKIRI with Agency reports
…as Nigerians consume 7mmts of rice yearly
- Production grew by 60% to 4.9mmts in 2019
Nigerian rice farmers fall short after borders close
Thomas Tyavwva Maji is planting rice on more of his land in Benue State than ever to take advantage of the surge in prices since the Federal Government shut the Nation’s land borders in August 2019.
But he says he cannot go much further. With no machinery or irrigation, limited manual labour and no spare cash for fertilizers, the 45-year-old farmer is not expecting any dramatic change in his fortunes.
“We work until we get exhausted, manually we get exhausted,” said Maji, as a woman nearby beat hand-harvested stalks on the ground to separate the grains from the chaff.
The constraints Maji faces have bedevilled many rice farmers and millers across Nigeria for years. Despite government measures designed to spur production, farmers in the country get far less from their land than other major rice growers and the West African country is only marginally less reliant on imports, reports Reuters.
That’s a problem for a government that wants to grow all of its own food and boost the country’s agriculture, a sector that accounts for nearly a third of gross domestic product in Africa’s biggest economy.
When he came to power in 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari pledged to help the nation become self-sufficient in rice – once a luxury but now a staple for millions of Nigerians.
In 2015, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) listed rice as one the 41items it banned from accessing its foreign exchange for the importation of the grain and the apex bank further backed loans of at least N40 billion ($130 million) to help small-scale farmers boost output under its ‘Anchor Borrowers Programme’.
The government also took the step of banning rice imports across the Nation’s land borders and kept hefty 70 per cent tariffs on rice imports coming through ports.
Also, in August last year, the Federal Government went further to announce the closure of the land borders altogether to stamp out smuggling, often from neighbouring Benin, with rice being one of the main targets.
Speaking on the benefits of the border closure, Senor Special Assistant to the President on Media, Garba Shehu, said the measures boosted rice production to 9.2 million metric tonnes last year from 7.2 million in 2015, making Nigeria more or less self-sufficient.
Despite the claim, however, the government did not stop anybody who can pay the 70 per cent tariff from importing.
This came as the Agricultural data specialist Gro Intelligence put Nigeria’s rice output at 4.9 million tonnes in 2019, up 60 per cent from 2013, which is about 2.1 million metric tonnes less than the 7 million tonnes Nigerians consume yearly.
Similarly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that Nigeria’s 2020 rice imports will rise by 9 per cent to 2.4 million metric tonnes despite the border closure, in part due to the high cost of unprocessed Nigerian paddy rice and elevated operating costs at mills.
Meanwhile, the Sunday Telegraph Market Survey team observed that in the markets where most Nigerians buy their food, sacks of Nigerian rice are piled high but imported rice is still available, even though some traders keep the foreign grain under wraps to prevent it being confiscated by customs agents.
Small-scale farmers such as Maji account for 80 per cent of Nigeria’s rice production with a handful of large companies like Coscharis Group, Dangote and Olam, growing the rest, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
In Benue State, virtually every aspect of Maji’s farming is manual, from planting to harvesting to levelling out roads to take the crop to market and it’s a similar story on many Nigerian farms, leaving the average yield per hectare at just over 2 tonnes – half the global average and a fraction of Egypt’s 9.5 tonnes a hectare, according to U.N. data.
Experts say there is little hope of improvement without significant investment in irrigation, mechanisation, roads and storage. More than 12 per cent of rice is also wasted due to poor roads and inefficient harvesting, milling and storage, consultants KPMG said in a review of the Nigeria’s rice industry.
In a good year, Maji makes about N1.5 million ($4,900) – nowhere close to the N5 million, at least, a tractor would cost. Without irrigation, a goal so remote he doesn’t even know the cost, he can only plant one crop a year.
“At this scale, we will not even be able to fetch a tractor. Talk less of fertilizer and other chemicals,” Maji said.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), less than 1 per cent of Nigeria’s farmland is irrigated, compared with a global average of more than 20 per cent.
Small- and medium-scale rice millers, who account for more than 80 percent of the local market, also say they’re struggling to meet increased demand without proper equipment.
At Wurukum Rice Mill in Makurdi, Iveren Asan works alongside her sister, using a loud diesel-powered generator to drive machinery processing paddy grains into consumable rice.
Nearby, rice grains that have been parboiled in vats heated by firewood dry on tarps. She said new buyers from across the country had surfaced since the border closure – but producing more would require significant investment in new machines and the higher prices were not enough on their own.
“We can’t meet the demand. We are doing the process manually, so we cannot meet the demand,” she said.
More broadly, experts warned that extreme measures, such as border closure, taken in the name of food security were hurting Nigerians, stunting the development of other industries and holding back foreign investment.
“The border closure has been incredibly disruptive,” said John Ashbourne, an economist at Capital Economics. “It stops industries from getting the imports they need, and it pushes up prices.”
The border closure is set for review January 31 but the presidency says land frontiers would remain shut until Nigeria’s neighbours stopped smuggling on their side – and there was “no sign of compliance yet”.
Ashbourne said even some farming has taken a hit from government policies. After glass was added to the Central Bank’s list of items importers cannot buy with foreign exchange, some tomato paste plants shut because they couldn’t source the jars they needed.
On another farm in Benue State, Abraham Hon, 51, weaves through rows of melons and corn before reaching his rice, the crop that generates the most money.
“The prices look pretty good,” he said, as men cut stalks of rice by hand and laid them in piles on the ground. “We expect more money in the pocket this year.”
But while he and Asan are happy with their increased income, they worry about the impact of higher prices on consumers.
A 50 kg bag of rice can cost as much as N24, 000 in Lagos – nearly double the price in July before the borders were shut and not far below the monthly minimum wage of N30, 000.
And consumers, who already spend more than half their income on food according to the World Bank, are feeling the squeeze.
“We will reach a point where people who are buying rice can’t afford to buy. They will look at other alternatives to get energy and get food on their table,” Hon said, “That in the long term is not in the interest of we, the farmers.”