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Land border closure and implications on local rice production

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Audu OgbehPhoto: NAN


• Farmers say move will save billions of naira
• No, it’s myopic, Sani insists

In this exclusive report, Femi Ibirogba aggregates the views of experts, farmers and other stakeholders on the raging issue of land border closure against rice smuggling as well as its effects on local production and Nigeria’s drive for food security.

The Federal Government shocked Nigerians early last week when it disclosed through the Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Audu Ogbeh, that it would soon close some neighbouring land borders. Government views such land borders as routes that undermine Nigeria’s efforts at food security, especially, local rice production, processing and sales, with huge economic drains on the foreign reserves.

A prominent argument, among several others given by the current government, is that the closure of these borders would consolidate the gains that have seen rice importation reduced by more than 95 per cent in the last two years, adding that the number of rice farmers has increased from five million to 30 million.Food security, rice import substitution challenge, smuggling and porous nature of land borders have been recurring national issues considering the volume of foreign reserves that goes into food import bills annually. Substandard food items preserved with chemicals are posing threats to public heath, the minister argued.

Though the Agricultural Transformation Agenda (ATA) of the Federal Government was launched in 2011 with the goals of adding 20 million metric tonnes to the domestic food supply; making the country self-sufficient in food production by 2015 and end the N356 billion spent on importing rice annually, as well as replace up to 40 per cent of the wheat imports for which the country spends over N 635 billion annually by 2015, little has been achieved till now, propelling the current move of the Muhammadu Buhari-led administration.

It will be recalled that former Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr Akinwumi Adesina, towards the end of Dr Goodluck Jonathan-led administration, blamed the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) for the increase in the importation and smuggling of rice into Nigeria, despite the increase in local production.“These {bags of} rice were not imported into this country by heads or donkeys, they were imported using trucks, and trucks were not ghosts, which means the Nigerian Customs need to do their job properly,” he had said.

“Nigerian Custom data indicated that an average of 341,000 of milled rice, 384,000 of rice of all types was imported into Nigeria from 2009 to 2011, while data obtained shows that the Nigerian import in this period shows an average of 517,000 metric tonnes per year,” the former minister had added.However, there are divergent opinions on expected effects of the decision of the government. Some stakeholders argued it might worsen the economy, while some said it might be one of the game changers in the efforts to become and remain food-secure.

Paddy/rice production
The Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria (RIFAN), through its national president, Aminu Goronyo, while expressing its views on the decision, said the move would save the country several billions of naira spent on food importation and increase productivity and production of rice farmers.“It is a good move by the government for the entire country because huge amount of money has been spent on rice importation from Thailand,” RIFAN said.

Similarly, an Ebonyi State-based producer of Best Eagle rice, Mr. Anthony Muoneke, agreed with the view of RIFAN on the multiplier effect of the step, saying low demand for locally produced paddies, raw materials for polished rice, has kept many farmers out of farming because the demand for the end product is lower than imported one.He too opined that the decision of the government would serve as demand-driven motivation for farmers, adding that price of rice would eventually become more reasonable and affordable to all Nigerians and hunger would be minimised. Muoneke said this would create more direct and indirect jobs because more people would most likely go into paddy production, and abandoned rice processing facilities would come back to life, reducing the unemployed population.

A former Minister of Commerce and Industry in the Olusegun Obasanjo-led administration from 2007 to 2008 and producer of Ebony Super rice, Mr. Charles Ugwuh, said closing these borders was long overdue, saying, however, that it is never too late.He believed that the action, though coming after many of the rice-producing plants had stopped operations because of harsh competition, would protect the existing local rice industry, help in resuscitating the collapsed ones, and protect jobs from being exported to Thailand and other rice producing countries in Asia.

Demand and supply forces
A critic of the current administration and senator representing Kaduna Central in the National Assembly, Shehu Sani, said the decision was myopic, adding that the security apparatus of the country should be able to deal effectively with the menace of smuggling through the borders, saying, “our layers of security operatives should be able to combat or prevent smuggling without suffocating legitimate businesses and stifling border communities.”

Pitching his tent with Sani, the Director-General of the Lagos State Chambers of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), Mr. Muda Yusuf, described the step as cosmetic; an effort that treats symptoms rather than causes, saying, “smuggling is a symptom of a problem and when you begin to fight a symptom, you cannot solve the problem. You need to identify the cause of the problem.”He argued that though the government had made efforts towards food security in general, the local production or supply of polished rice is still below demand, a pointer to scarcity and inflation. He added that as of now, the supply deficit hovers around 3 million metric tonnes of rice locally.

Managing Director of NOVA Technologies Ltd, an agricultural equipment manufacturer based in Ibadan, Mr. Bankole Oyeniyi, expressed reservations on the plan of the government, saying the government would not take the step because it “enjoys playing the Big Brother card,” which would not permit it to take the bold step. He agreed that if done, the desired effects could be achieved, but was pessimistic that security/custom officials would not sabotage the closure.

He advocated a system of letting the forces of demand and supply decide whether Nigerians want to embrace local rice, its attendants of job opportunities and sustainable economy or export their opportunities to foreign countries. He argued that other necessary conditions should be emplaced, such as increased productivity per hectare, high quality processing and packaging facilities, as well as cost-effective power for production. Oyeniyi said: “Once Nigerians can get good quality rice at competitive price, imported rice will lose stronghold on the nation. The onus is really on the Nigeria Custom Service to do their job. No matter the closure of the borders, a conniving custom service will create loopholes.
“Again, make high quality local rice available, and let the market decide.”

On job creation
Most of the stakeholders in the rice sector are optimistic that a surviving and competitive local industry would go a long way in reducing the rate of unemployment in the country. From framers, they claim, to paddy up-takers, processors, and marketers, a huge demand for labour is inevitable if the economy supports local rice production and export. The Country Director and Regional Coordinator of the Africa Rice Centre based in the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) premises in Ibadan, Dr Francis Nwinele, while speaking with The Guardian, emphatically said the government’s decision, if honestly carried out, would create more jobs, reduce poverty and boost productivity potentialities and disposable income of Nigerian rice farmers. This corroborates Mr. Ugwuh’s point of view on job creation and its multiplier effects on the Nigerian economy.

Dr Nwilene, however, harped on more training and empowerment schemes for rice farmers on the latest rice production technologies, adoption of improved rice seed varieties that can match yield per hectare as obtainable in Asian countries, which he puts at between six and eight tonnes per hectare. He was optimistic that with good practices, use of recommended herbicides, fertilizer, effective pest control and crop protection, rice farmers in Africa can surpass other continents in rice production.Nwilene emphasised that there are many paddy off-takers such as Olam Rice, BUA Group and Dangote Group, among others, which could mop up paddies from farmers, thus encouraging greater efforts on the part of the farmers.
Mr. Ugwuh and Muoneke also insisted that thousands of job opportunities had been lost to dysfunctional rice processing facilities in Nigeria. They expressed faith in the potentiality of the sector to mop up a sizeable number of direct and collateral workers.

Production technologies, improved varieties, processing capacity and efficiency
The Africa Rice centre boss said with the arable landmass, labour and emerging production technologies available in Nigeria, the country should be able to feed its population with quality rice and export the rest not only to other African countries but also to other continents.He urged the government to complement the move with investments in rice production technologies, improved varieties, crop protection and processing technologies, as well as farmer education. Without trained farmers, all other efforts might fail, he added.

The synchronised views imply that beyond declaration of border closure, actions should be taken, security agents should implement the decision with utmost loyalty, and complementary efforts in terms of conducive environment, research activities, encouragement of paddy producers and processors, and sustainable schemes of financing should be adequately provided in the efforts to make Nigeria not only rice but also food-secure.


In this article:
Audu OgbehFemi Ibirogba
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