‘Border closure is good for agro-allied investments, but …’
Dr Francis Nwilene is the Regional Coordinator Head of Africa Rice Centre. He spoke with FEMI IBIROGBA on the inherent benefits of closing the porous borders, saying such would revive interest and investment in the agricultural sector and could help the country to close the demand-supply gap in rice production. Excerpts:
Nigeria has closed some porous borders and price of rice is going up. Some Nigerians are complaining. What do you think as a rice researcher?
I see this as a very positive development because what we have been doing is putting pressure on our local producers by bringing in what we can produce in the country through the porous borders. Looking at what the government policy as of today, I see it as a welcome development because it will motivate the rice farmers to produce more. If nothing is coming in, they will be encouraged to produce.It is better to eat rice produced in Nigeria because it is more nutritious than smuggled rice which has stayed in storage for many years. To me, it is a welcome development. Let us see what we can do to encourage local farmers because as of now, we are putting a lot of pressure on the economy through the foreign exchange. Why cannot we use the resources to empower our own farmers?
Some Nigerians have agitated that they should have allowed importation to go on while the country revs up local production to avoid food scarcity and inflation, stopping importation or smuggling without adequate preparation is not proper. How do you see that?
In as much as we blame smugglers, the government needs to do something for its producers. Rice is a water-loving crop. Water infrastructure development must be in place. Big players like Coscharis Farm are coming into rice production and processing. We have depended on the rain-fed agriculture for too long, especially in the south. That cannot help us to attain self-sufficiency in rice production. We have most irrigation facilities in the north. If all states, both north and south, can go to massive irrigation facility development, rice challenge will be a thing of the past in Nigeria.
We have also witnessed establishment of big rice mills in Nigeria. But apart from that, we should encourage rice technology innovation platforms, where farmers now process their rice and the quality can compete with Asian rice. This is what we have done in Lafia, Nasarawa State, and it is a model that has improved on the quality. If you go to Lafia today, people prefer the product because it is as good as any quality in Asia.
Did you mean cottage rice processing facilities?
Yes. It is cottage processing with improved technologies. About 70 per cent of rice in Asia is from the cottage industry, while the 30 per cent is from the integrated rice mills.
Do we have enough mills to handle processing if farmers actually produce paddies as envisaged?
The number of integrated rice mills in Nigeria is still very few. We have about 16 or 17 mills as of today. Most of the mills are owned by foreigners. And I am happy to learn that Ekiti State is establishing one mill. Japan will install one for them. And I think the same is happening in Oyo State. These big mills, in addition to the cottage mills, will make each state process its rice.
Are you saying that the closure of the borders, if sustained, could stimulate rice production?
Yes. It will. We should have enough rice to feed ourselves and exports. And we are almost there. Nigeria needs about 7.8 million tonnes of rice, and we are producing about 6.4 million tonnes. We are almost there.
As a research institute, have you developed improved varieties that can transform yield per hectare?
We have developed in-bred lines that can yield seven to eight tonnes per hectare. We have also developed hybrids that can yield 12 to 13 tonnes per hectare. The hybrid was developed in our station in Senegal. Bringing the Senegalese variety into Nigeria will not solve the problem because of genotype by environment interaction. The variety will not yield 12 tonnes because it was researched in a different ecological condition. What we are proposing is that Nigerian government and the so-called investors should finance research to develop Nigeria-adapted hybrid rice variety. I submitted a proposal to the Federal Government in 2018 through the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and I submitted the second one. Up till now, the proposal has not been supported. We have to do it, and do it in Nigeria.
How many years will it take you to develop hybrid varieties?
It is not more than two years. The technology is there.
The best available you have developed so far here yields eight tonnes?
Do farmers have access to these improved seed varieties?
Yes, they do. But seed is one of the biggest challenge we have today?
Can you explain the seed challenge, sir?
Everybody claims he is a seed producer. And success or failure starts from the seed. There is a lot of mixture of ordinary grains and seeds. We are trying to tell farmers and processors to do a kind of integration where they get the breeder seeds from us a research institution. They can give them to their seed producers to multiply into foundation seeds.
They can now use the yield to produce certified seeds that would be planted for grains processed into rice. This way, they can be sure of the sources of their seeds and grains. But often, there is a disconnect. People tell you they are seed producers, but from where did they get their breeder seeds to produce foundation seeds, and before they get certified seeds?
In Nigeria, they should either source the breeder seeds from Africa Rice Centre or the National Cereals Research Institute (NCRI), Badeggi. We are not saying they cannot produce seeds, but let them get qualified breeders or source breeder seeds from those who have developed them. We have seen some seeds companies selling lowland rice seeds as upland rice, leading to very poor yields. It will not work, for farmers will not get the yield they are looking for. Let us do something and do it right. To me, our biggest problem starts from the seeds.
What is the difference between lowland and upland varieties and cultivation?
The difference is just water. When you have a place you can plant cassava or maize, that is upland. It means the crops are rain-fed. When you have irrigation or swampy areas, they are lowland cultivations and lowland varieties should be used.
How can Nigeria explore upland rice cultivation now that irrigation facilities are short and the need for more production is urgent?
Most lowland farms are always flooded now, and farmers lose their crops. They are trying to move upward of the slopes where flooding could not affect their crops. So, rain-fed rice is going to become very common in Nigeria because of flooding and lowland rice is going to be common because of dry season irrigation. In dry seasons, farmers can move to lowland and cultivate rice with irrigation because there is always residual moisture to grow the rice. The two varieties are key for Nigeria.
Do you have improved upland varieties too?
Yes. We have upland varieties. They yield about four to five metric tonnes per hectare.
Is that a good yield?
Yes. For the upland, it is a good yield because rice typically loves water to yield well. So, getting that yield with rainfalls is a very good yield.
What do you advise Nigerians and the government to do on rice production?
First, Nigeria has to set up rice seed development. All stakeholders must be on board, what do we do as a government? We must sit down on the same table to talk. Like now, take the case of Ebonyi State; the government takes it as a policy that no imported rice would come into the state, and today, it is exporting rice.
To me, this is the way all states should go. Ebonyi also needs to develop, because they can only produce during the raining season; they don’t have good irrigation facilities. This is one of the things the state government is trying to look into, because it goes to other states to mop paddies, process and supply. It goes beyond that. Every state should be able to do everything on their own.
Now in Cross Rivers state, there is pure integrated farming. They are not talking of seed but seedlings. That is a viable project, because in seeds, you do not know what is good or bad until you plant them. But in seedlings, you can see the uniformity. All you need is to transplant the seedlings. But the disadvantage of that is that it has to be done in places where you have clusters of farmers. So, what Cross Rivers has done is a model that can be replicated.