Insight

Talking points, sustainable agriculture and Abuja Rice Pyramid

The Federal Government recently showed its determination to make Nigeria a self-sufficient nation in food production and a major player in the agricultural value chain in sub-Saharan Africa and across the world with the showcasing of the Abuja Rice Pyramid. CALEB ONWE takes a look at efforts of the government and challenges facing the sector.

The Abuja’s Mega rice pyramids festival may have come and gone, but the dusty whirlwind it stirred up across the country may take some time to settle. While the Federal Government brag and seek accolades that it has erected the biggest rice pyramid in Africa, many stakeholders disagree, saying it was a barefaced shameful contrivance. Critics have also described the Rice Pyramid as a desperate showmanship and electioneering stunt, deliberately contrived to sway feeble minded members of the society, ahead of 2023 general elections.

The rice pyramid which started sprouting about three months before the actual display, within the expanse premises of Abuja Chambers of Commerce and Industry, is said to consist of about one million bags of rice paddy. Rice paddy is a yet to be milled or processed raw harvested rice seeds. Despite the barrage of criticism trailing the pyramid, the Central Bank of Nigeria which midwifed the festival, remains steadfast in its claims that it was a first of its kind on the continent.

Ostensibly, the Federal Government was upbeat that irrespective of all the challenges, CBN through its Anchor Borrowers Programme, has something to show in the rice subsector. Commissioning the pyramids, President Muhammadu Buhari said the country was steadily advancing towards self-sufficiency in food production.

The President said that the CBN’s Anchor Borrower’s Programme supported over 4.8 million small-holder farmers across Nigeria for the production of 21 agricultural commodities, including maize, rice, oil palm, cocoa, cotton, cassava, tomatoes and livestock. Buhari noted that the transformation in the rice subsector had also reflected on the increase in the number of rice mills in the country. He said: “There were only 15 standard rice mills in Nigeria. Today, we have over 50 standard and integrated rice mills creating jobs and reducing unemployment. Additional significant output will be achieved when two new mills are started in Lagos and Katsina.” He also believes that Anchor Borrowers Programme was one of the timely interventions which his administration has used for the benefits of Nigerians. “The Anchor Borrowers’ Programme has become one of the reference points in the administration’s agricultural revolution effort. “Nigeria is making steady and assured progress towards self-sufficiency in food production, and it is my desired hope and expectation that other agricultural commodity associations that are yet to participate under the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme will emulate the Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria in supporting our administration’s drive for food self-sufficiency,” the President added.

While critics of the rice pyramids remain resentful about the festival, the CBN’s helmsman, Godwin Emefiele, who played a major role in the Anchor Borrowers Programme, as well as initiating the pyramid, remains delighted. Emefiele noted that the Buhari administration has invested so much in achieving food sufficiency especially with the pyramids. According to him, CBN’s interventions in agriculture value chain through the Anchor Borrowers Programme are yielding great success.

He said; “We are delighted that these efforts have yielded fruits in not just increasing the availability of rice, but also in moderating prices, reducing imports and increasing job creation in the country. For example, Thailand alone exported 1.3 million metric tons of rice to Nigeria in 2014. “The ABP was launched in 2015 to curtail these imports, and since then, we have seen incremental reductions in rice imports from Thailand. By 2016, rice imports from Thailand had fallen to only 58,000 metric tons. As of the end of 2021, they only exported 2,160 metric tons to Nigeria, thereby saving us foreign exchange and helping preserve jobs in Nigeria.

“Beyond increasing our national output from about 5.4 million metric tons in 2015 to over nine million metric tons in 2021, we have also significantly improved the productivity per hectare of the small-holder farmer from about 2.4 metric tons per ha in 2015 to about five metric tons per ha in 2021. “These expansions have not only made Nigeria the largest rice producer in Africa but has also unlocked enormous private sector investment in the rice value chain as the number of Integrated Rice Mills grew astronomically from six in 2015 to over 50 in 2021 with many more in various stages of completion.

Barrage of doubts, controversies

Despite the efforts made by the promoters of Abuja’s Mega rice pyramids, many critics still hold the opinion that the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari has unwittingly started a fraudulent electioneering stunt. One of such critics, is the convener of RevolutionNow, Omoyele Sowore. Sowore has refused to backtrack in his attack against the pyramids, describing it as a “sick joke.” The social activist and embattled politician even doubted that the bags actually contained real rice paddy. According to him, if the bags all contain rice paddy, the promoters wouldn’t have exposed them to adverse weather for three whole months. “There are photos from “Nigeria’s rice pyramids” set up in an Abuja neighbourhood for over three months and it is the sickest joke of what leadership has become in this part of the world.

“How do people stack up bags of rice paddies (assuming it is not sawdust) on top of each other, just to prove there is abundance of “local rice” available in “large quantities” in an obscure Abuja suburb, but these are no where to be found in supermarkets and restaurants? “And today, Muhammadu Buhari was drivenleading a convoy of jokers- to “commission” the rice pyramids, and this is not 1950, we are in 2022! Who stores edible rice in an open silos for three months exposed to vagaries of weather and climate?” Sowore asked. The National President, All Farmers Association (AFAN), Arch. Kabir Ibrahim, believes that the promoters of the rice pyramids were smart by half in their schemings. Ibrahim opined that initiating a Mega rice pyramids amidst skyrocketing prices of foods in the market, was insensitive and a counterproductive move to win the hearts of citizens.

He said; “The idea of the pyramid is to showcase the mileage achieved by the rice sufficiency effort of the Buhari administration through the CBN Anchor Borrower programme. “It is however not properly thought out, especially in the middle of skyrocketing prices of food items. “The situation is akin to outward show up without inner reflection on the plight of the typical citizen who is finding it difficult to feed his family. Ibrahim also noted that it was doubtful that Nigeria rice farmers produced all the rice paddy displayed at the pyramids. His argument was anchored on the fact that flooding had devastated so many rice farms in the states that have high propensity for large rice production. “The farmers are facing difficulty in everyday life like other Nigerians, so the effect of flooding in the period in question is indeed a factor in productivity worth noting in assessing rice sufficiency at this time,” he noted. While he called on CBN to carry out more due diligent investigation before collaborating with any group to implement any of its interventions, he also urged government to mill the rice and sell to members of the public at subsidized rates. “If the rice showcased in the pyramids is milled and sold to the public at subsidized price there may be some relief from the high prices generally. “The CBN should do due diligence in implementing the ABP by reaching out to the real farmers through AFAN. “It should also intervene in Agriculture in synergy with the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development for sustainability,” Ibrahim added.

PDp’s hammer on the pyramids

The major opposition party, Peoples Democratic Party joined other critics that have thrown aspersions on the promoters of the rice pyramids. The party through its National Publicity Secretary, Debo Ologunagba, said the All Progressives Congress had staged a media stunt to beguile Nigerians ahead of the 2023 elections. “Of course, there is nothing to celebrate in the APC pyramid of lies in Abuja.

It is rather shameful that APC leaders are again ridiculing President Buhari by making him unveil pyramids of allegedly imported foreign rice which are re-bagged as locally produced, just to create an impression of a boost in local production under his watch.

“If indeed, there is a boost in the local production of rice as the APC wants Nigerians to believe, how come the price of rice has not come down, but continues to soar from about N8,000 per bag which the PDP handed over to the APC in 2015 to about N30,000 per bag today?” According to the statement; “the PDP turned the Waterland of various states of the country into huge rice production hubs with farms and mills springing up across the country, leading to a boost in local production.

“Nigerians can recall how APC-led administration failed to protect our farmers and particularly how it blamed over 40 rice farmers killed by terrorists in Borno State instead of going after their assailants. “The APC pyramids of lies are therefore nothing but huge signposts of their failures.” According to the PDP, with the 2023 elections in sight, the APC is desperate in pushing its propaganda, deceit, and bogus claims. Ologunagba in the statement warned that the APC failed to realise that 2023 was not 2015, adding that Nigerians have seen through the party’s deceits and not even these ‘pyramids of lies’ can help it in 2023.

Agricultural commodities marketers

Some groups of agricultural commodities marketers have also thrown spanners to the wheel of the promoters, by calling them “magicians of the 21st century.” \A member of the group in Abuja, Abdullahi Kazaure, said most of the rice paddy were not produced in Nigeria. Kazaure who claimed he had been in the business of agricultural commodities marketing in Nigeria for the past 20 years, noted that while rice production had improved in some parts of the country, rice farmers in most of the Northern states had suffered great losses to flooding. While he claimed that middlemen had traversed through states of Northern Nigeria to buy rice for storage and could not get enough, he alleged that government entered into trade agreements with foreigners to smuggle in the rice paddy from neighbouring African countries.

Devastation of rice farms in many northen states

Another factor which stakeholders said has cast a very dark shadow of doubts on the claims of Abuja’s Mega rice pyramids, is the report that between 2020 and 2021 that most of the rice farming communities in far Northern states of Nigeria suffered an unprecedented flood disaster. One of the media reports, even claimed that over 100, 000 rice farmers were adversely affected and were in dire need of assistance. More intricately, the Bank of Agriculture (BOA) that had the responsibility of recovering loan facilities given to rice farmers, sometime ago, had cried out, that the effects of flooding on some of the farmers was making the loan repayment difficult. Stakeholders have also questioned the integrity of the Mega rice pyramids, when empirical reports have it that Kebbi State, one of the areas with high propensity for rice production was among the worst hit by the flooding.

It could be recalled that Kebbi State had once demonstrated its capacity in commercial rice production, when it collaborated with Lagos State to mass produce the “Lake Rice Brand,” which was hugely marketed across the South West. According to reports, about 11 local government areas, namely: Argungu, Birnin Kebbi, Bunza, Suru, Koko-Besse, Yauri, Shanga, Bagudo, Maiyama, Jega and Dandi, were hugely devastated by flood. The Chairman, Kebbi SEMA, Alhaji Sani Dododo, said; “The flood submerged more than 450,000 hectares of rice plantation in the lowland.

Over 50,000 hectares of millet, sorghum, maize and sugarcane plantations were also destroyed in the highland. “When you combine the two areas, you will arrive at about 500,000 hectares destroyed by flood this year and rice farmers were the worst hit. This is because rice constitutes about 90 per cent of the total plantation. The remaining crops stood at only 10 per cent.” One poser that promoters of the Abuja’s Mega rice pyramids may struggle to provide sufficient and convincing answers to, is if Kebbi State rice farmers alone suffered this magnitude of flooding disaster, when the flooding effects on rice farmers in other states are calculated, will the pyramids still represent the reality on ground?

Allegations of smuggling of Rice Paddy

While some members of the Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria (RIFAN) who were allegedly ‘conscripted’ into the rice pyramids stunt try to justify the initiative, credible sources reveal that some of the rice paddy may have actually been smuggled in from neighbouring African countries.

The RIFAN Pyramid Sub-Committee Chairman, Shehu Muazu, said that the paddy was collected from the beneficiaries of the Anchor Borrowers Programme (ABP) of the CBN under its business strategy partnership. RIFAN, apart from playing to the gallery, has not categorically tackled the allegation that it’s members were bought over to conceal the real sources of most of the rice paddy. However, there was indications that some rice paddy was smuggled in from northern Cameroon; Cotonou, the Republic of Benin; Niger and Togo. Another strong point that lends credence to the claims of smuggling in the rice paddy, is the involvement of a foreign consultant in the pyramids initiative. A consultant, Jack Khan, who also claimed that he is Senegalese-Muritanean born African was one of the foreigners that were heavily involved in building the Abuja’s Mega rice pyramids.

Khan, the Chief Executive Officer of Intervalue group and African partner of Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria, also revealed that he was an international rice trader of over 25 years. Though he smartly avoided disclosing his extent of involvement in building the rice pyramids, but confirmed that had been actively involved in rice production and cross border trade throughout West Africa. Khan said; “Rice production in Africa is one of the most critical items that need to be successful. West Africa as a whole has been importing about 10 million tonnes of rice yearly.

“I have been spending a lot of time in Nigeria, personally I have been staying in Sokoto since 2015, and have seen the gap that needs to be filled. “There had been laudable initiatives. Since 2015 we have seen changes, and transformation spare headed by Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria through the leadership of President Buhari, and there is need for it to be accelerated.”

Challenging factors in sustainable agriculture

However, despite the success that the Buhari administration wants the people to see in its drive for rice sufficiency, as exemplified by the Rice Pyramids, the government many believe seem to be ignoring factors that inhibits food sufficiency in the country and would rather focus on political agriculture, as exemplified by the Abuja Rice Pyramids.

Sadly, the government’s efforts to diversify the economy through agriculture, with special focus on rice production and also achieve food sufficiency have continued to receive deadly blows from all sides. It is important to state that herders and farmer’s clashes or even terrorism and banditry would be a challenge to the realisation of the set goals. While the above stated challenges were receiving attention, no matter how little, the COVID-19 pandemic surfaced two years ago to compound the problems of Nigeria’s agriculture and food security drive.

The President, All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN) Arc. Ibrahim has corroborated the points that agricultural revolution in the country had been jinxed. Ibrahim who said that farmers have remained sad over the development in the sector, listing several factors, which he argued were the greatest enemy to the efforts being made.

He noted that insecurity, COVID-19 pandemic, effects of climate change, multiple taxation and extortion of transporters were among the challenges that needed to be urgently addressed. Ibrahim said; “The Federal Government’s effort to impact the food system sustainably is threatened by insecurity, COVID-19, climate change and many other issues including multiple taxation as well as possible extortion of transporters carrying the produce.

“The farmers in some cases organise vigilance groups to secure their farmland and harvested crops before taking them home. “The effort of the farmers is a far cry from the needed security required for a sustainable food sufficiency. “The quest for food sufficiency is greatly jeopardised by insecurity therefore there is every need by the government to do more in that respect to avoid a serious food crises,” he added. A woman farmer, Hajia Fatima Abubakar, who has ventured into several value chains of agriculture on commercial scale, also confirmed that agricultural revolution in Nigeria may remain a mirage, except drastic measure were taken to address the identified challenges. Another woman farmer, and the Chairperson, African Kilimanjaro Women Forum (AKIWOF) for ECOWAS member states, Hajia Zainab Arah, lamented the activities of bandits, which she said crippled farming activities in Northern Nigeria.

Arah, who is also the Zamfara State Coordinator, Small Scale Women Farmers Organisation in Nigeria (SWOFON), stated that banditry in some parts of the country has continued to frustrate farmers’ efforts, as women are afraid of being raped by the randy bandits. Also, the National President of Smallholder Women Farmers Organisation of Nigeria (SWOFON), Mrs. Mary Afan, said government must wake up, if actually the dream of diversifying the country’s economy to agriculture will be realised. Afan disclosed that government had started giving women farmers micro machinery inputs across the country but need to do more in order to achShe however, lamented that insecurity in parts of the country was hitting the smallholder farmers badly. According to her, the cases of the women who are from parts of Northern Nigeria where terrorists and bandits reign supreme, are said to be more deplorable. She noted that women who reportedly constitute a major percentage of both smallholder farmers, and available agricultural labour force there no longer have access to their farms, because terrorists and bandits see the women as easy prey.

Extortion allegations

A truck driver, Aminu Zakari, who claimed he has been in transportation business for more than 30 years confirmed that agro products merchants were always at the mercy of security agencies on the highways. Zakari says he conveys all manner of crops and Livestock, like tomatoes, yams, beans, cattle and rams from the North to various parts of the country. According to him, he comes to Abuja Zuba Fruits market at least once in a week, carrying cargo for merchants. He said that apart from paying bandits and terrorists who are in charge in some rural communities in the North, a truck driver will also bribe police, soldiers and para-military agencies with between N500 and N1000 at multiple check points on the roads.

Government’s reaction

A senior director at the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, who pleaded anonymity noted that government was actually worried at the myriad of challenges dogging the progress of agricultural revolution in the country. Although, he claimed that the programmes designed to revive the sector were well thought out globally acceptable template, he admitted that unscrupulous politicians the frustrate implementation. According to him, at the peak of COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the Federal Government inaugurated a Presidential Committee on the seamless movement of agro products across the country.

He said the mandate of the Committee included checking the alleged extortion of transporters carrying agro produce. While he refused to confirm the status of that Presidential Committee, New Telegraph’s checks revealed that it only existed on paper and members of the committee have remained redundant.

 

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