Ofada Rice: High In Demand, Short In Supply
Pains Of Trading Truly Indigenous Produce
In Nigerian dining tables, Ofada rice has grown in culinary prominence over the years, but far beyond the shores of the nation, in US, Canada and the UK, the longing to have the stuff in the menu has not diminished. The demand is high, but it is in short supply as could be observed from the present selling price of N25,000-N32,000 for a 50kg bag in the country, depending on the source and quality.
Ofada rice has carved a niche for itself. A meal of the local short, stout, brown rice has been elevated to a thing of status and cultural pride, especially given the nature of its preparation and the unique sauce that is used in serving it.
Besides, the healthy attributes of this unpolished brand have driven it to the tables of even those with the need for special diet –the diabetic and keen health watchers.
Naturally, one would have thought the rural sleepy town of Ofada in Ogun State, where the name of the grain is derived, to be a beehive of whirring noise of rice processing machines and pall of rice husk rising in the sky, but no.
As the traditional ruler of the town, in a recent media comment put it, the land in the area has almost been lost to real estate developers and speculators with rice only now a metaphor. However, being the homestead crop of the area in the past, the name has stuck, and spread across other southwest states, where the local unpolished rice of similar variety is also grown.
The United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID), in conjunction with PrOpCom, concerned about the vanishing status of Ofada rice and low yield for the peasant farmers, carried an intervention work not long ago.
Though it recognised that Ofada is exceptional, low-yielding local rice with a distinct taste and aroma, which should make it a speciality product, it needed close study to make a more productive and better product with higher earning capacity.
Therefore, its intervention at the time was predicated on a number of issues. In a report written for DFID, PrOpCom noted that:
“Ofada rice could find new customers in higher end urban and Diaspora markets, which are in search of ‘authentic’ experience and can afford to pay a higher price,” and need for a cleaner ‘rural’ product to reach new urban customers.
“Cheaper rice is replacing Ofada rice as a staple crop and becoming more a festive food, consumed in small quantities on special occasions.
“Yields from Ofada varieties are half that from improved imported varieties,” using up more land and earning half as much as the regular rice farmer.
Other challenges it observed were at the processing side of the value chain, where more efficient equipment, including de-stoning facilities should be put in place.
PrOpCom conducted a consumer survey, where 12 genuine Ofada varieties were identified. However, the Africa Rice Centre, together with the National Cereals Research Institute (NCRI), Baddegi, Niger State, put these into four main groups. “Purified breeder seeds for these four groups were handed over to Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria (RiFAN) for multiplication.”
Ofada has remained the generic name for these rice varieties and the PrOpCom report revealed that there was no consensus reached as to standardising the product at the time it was attempted.
Aside a number of other problems handled by DFID and its partner organization, such as recommending bird netting for rice farms and introduction of cluster farms for use of de-stoning machines, implementation remains an issue. Existence of these farms in clusters was pushed as practical means of making small Ofada rice farmers act as big players, thereby making equipment and government facilities accessible.
One thing that has been evident since the major work done by PrOpCom is the better packaging now given to processed clean grains; many have resorted to use of well designed, labeled and graphically attractive packets.
In the face of increasing demand, as corroborated by stakeholders, more discerning consumers in African markets and in the Diaspora prefer the product well packaged.
Stakeholders and present challenges
Much as the aggregate demand for Ofada at both local and ethnic market is growing, there are several challenges that have militated against achieving the target of satisfying consumers.
Pastor Bode Adenekan, Chairman, Rice Growers Association of Nigeria, Ogun State chapter, who is already articulating the rigours of preparing for a new planting season said there are issues that the government should step in to address.
For instance, he said farmers are still grappling with land development as only small portions of land are prepared for cultivation, and manually done in most cases. This has reduced the acreage tilled, increased labour cost, reduced production and the chances of deployment of modern farm machinery.
In Ogun State, Adenekan said expanding the land area for cultivation is tough due to tree-populated forest that requires so much labour to clear. In this too, the use of tractors is limited since the roots of trees and shrubs would not allow work to be done as necessary. He urged the government to assist farmers in very clear terms, especially where the growers are supposed to be grouped in clusters for better management.
Bird invasion on rice farms has been a recurring problem in the area. According to Adenekan, and in line with the experience of other farmers, tackling the problem has been time-consuming and labour intensive mainly with rudimentary methods. It requires human presence for about 12 hours daily for the critical 30-day period it would take the grain endosperm to firm up and thereafter, become of no interest to the birds. Without adequate preparation at this stage, the farmer may end up getting no harvest at the end of the season.
The challenge is more serious with the low yield of about 2.5-4.0 tonnes per hectare in low land, wet areas and poorer performance for upland areas.
TRULY, water is at the heart of crop farming, and Isaac Adeoye, an engineer with OKD, a firm of irrigation engineering experts told The Guardian the downside of the rice business is the rain fed nature of its cultivation. It depends on seasonal rains; therefore the yield can be unpredictable. However, he said the yield could be given a good boost with irrigation farming during dry season and in upland areas, where water is not usually enough.