Within the last three years, six million people have embraced rice farming to increase the number to 11 million, thereby leading to over 90 per cent drop in the product’s import. This revolutionary turnaround should be protected if the current effort to escape from the rice trap is to become irreversible.
Rice, a staple in every home, drained Nigeria’s foreign reserves to the tune of $1.65 billion annually, until September 2017, says the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed. The country had up to September 2015 been importing 644,131 metric tons annually from Thailand, as against the current 20,000 metric tons.
However, this gain is being threatened by our neighbours, especially Cameroon and Benin Republic, with their zero and five per cent tariffs respectively on imported rice. The minister lamented last week that these tariff regimes exposed Nigeria to a flood of smuggled rice.
In graphic terms, he painted the picture in Benin thus, “The total demand for white rice is 400,000 metric tons. Yet, the country with a population of about 11 million, imports between one million and 1.2 million metric tons annually.” This means that over 600,000 metric tons of the rice ends up in the Nigerian market. A bag of this rice costs between N11,000 and N13, 000, as against Nigeria’s parboiled variety sold at N14,500 or N15,000 per 50kg bag. Under attack is not only the price, but millions of direct and indirect jobs the rice revolution has generated and the over N250 billion investment in the sector.
Smuggling thrives in an environment of inadequate legal framework and ineffective enforcement. Fighting this menace will need to go beyond the public enlightenment the ministry envisages to highlight the inherent health hazards in eating smuggled rice. Experts say much of the imported rice had been in silos of the countries of origin as strategic grains reserves for about nine years, only to be pushed to foreign markets as they were about to expire.
An effective antidote will require a strong policy response from the Federal Government and the Nigeria Customs Service. The Comptroller-General of Customs, Hameed Ali, should come up with extraordinary measures on border patrol to fatally crush the rice smuggling syndicates. The borders are too porous; and matters are worsened by corruption of customs officials. Trans-border customs cooperation needs to be pursued.
The investors, who had hearkened to the Federal Government’s advice to hug rice farming, recently expressed concern about the safety of their huge investments. The Managing Director of Agro Nigeria, an indigenous coalition, Richard-Mark Mbaram, said recently that the degree of the threat from Cameroon, Benin and Niger, could only be contained by a declaration of economic war. Without equivocation, Mbaram said, “So, Nigeria needs to take definite and radical measures. There’s no point playing the big brother on issues like this anymore. It is about our life as a nation.” Nothing could be more forthright.
In retrospect, Nigeria had taken similar action in 2003 when it shut its border with Benin Republic because of unremitting cross-border banditry and smuggling led by a notorious car snatcher, Amani Tijani. This compelled Beninoise authorities to swing into action. The underworld kingpin was arrested and handed over to Nigerian authorities for trial.
Ongoing trade disputes between the United States and China show that countries do not fold their arms when their economies are being threatened. A few days after the US released a list of 1,300 Chinese goods to attract higher tariffs, totalling about $50 billion, China swiftly responded with counter-measures: 128 US products are to attract 25 per cent tariff hike. The US has a trade deficit of $375 billion, and President Donald Trump wants a cut of about $100 billion from this imbalance.
President Muhammadu Buhari, who bemoaned the country’s 2.6 million metric tons of rice production annually, as against the estimated 6.1 million metric tons, when he launched the dry season farming and the Central Bank of Nigeria Anchor Borrower Programme in November 2015, should learn from the 2003 tough message to Benin and US-China trade war and act decisively.
Massive rice production is the most successful outcome from the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan document aggressively aided by the CBN scheme. Under the policy, farm inputs and cash are given to small-holders farmers to boost the exponential production in paddy rice, which the minister said had spiked from four million metric tons to seven million metric tons in the past three years.
Besides, corporate giants such as Dangote Group and Coscharis, among others, have stepped in. For instance, in 2016, the Dangote Group launched its Dangote Rice Out-growers Scheme in Jigawa State. This started with 200,000 hectares that involved 5,000 farmers who received treated rice seedling to expand to 800,000 hectares within three years. Host communities are to benefit more than 10,000 direct and indirect jobs from the project.
Conscious of the reality that rice is a product with a ready market, of which Nigeria is the biggest in Africa, all states are now competing in rice production. A survey conducted by the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in conjunction with the Agricultural Development Projects and Federal Department of Agricultural Extension, showed that Niger State led in rice production in 2017 with 545,700 metric tons, Kogi was second with 512,610 metric tons and Benue ranked third with 486,620 metric tons.
The dent on our rice import bill is already being felt by Thailand rice farmers, who have visited Nigeria, seeking the approval of the authorities to start rice milling here. Caution is needed here. The value chains from rice farming – processing, storage, logistics, jobs, wealth creation and foreign exchange conservation among others – are so huge to be trifled with or traded off. Act now, Buhari.