Senator Emmanuel Onwe, a lawyer, human rights activist and former newspaper columnist is the Ebonyi State Commissioner for Information. He had an engaging interaction with Vanguard’s editors during a visit to the Lagos headquarters of Vanguard Newspapers, recently. He spoke on the emergence of the home grown Ebonyi Rice as a better alternative to foreign brand and how to ensure food sufficiency in the country and wriggle out of recession among others.
Ebonyi rice game plan:
*Funding 171 co-operative societies
*Gave N214,000 each to 4275 farmers to cultivate 1hectare each
*Cultivated 30,000 hectares of rice farms this year (wet season)
*Budgeted N4 billion to expand to 60,000 hectares
*Supported 15,000 small scale farmers with FADAMA and IFAD’s help
*Has 3 mega 1000 metric tons a day processing mills
*Mega processing mills to have parboiling equipment by January, 2017
*Sets aside N250,000 billion for any Ebonyi Diaspora street trader willing to farm
On why he visited Vanguard
I want to talk about something tangible and something that Ebonyi State is proud to expose to other Nigerians. The idea that we have an economy that is not just stagnant but also in one of the worst recessions since the eighties is a cause for serious concern.
Ebonyi has taken the rigorous way knowing that we do not have a means of survival as a state. The allocation coming to Ebonyi from the Federal Government is one of the least in the country. Our Internally Generated Revenue, IGR last September was only about N7m to N8 m and allocation to the state was just N1.750billion. So, it is a dire situation.
That was why in June when the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN was initiating the Anchor Borrowers’ programme, we keyed in very seriously and borrowed about N2b from that and bought tractors, machines, pesticides and insecticides, etc. We funded cooperative societies in every ward of the state and each cooperative society has about 25 farmers.
We gave them N214,000 which is the CBN estimated cost of production per a hectare of land.
So, when the Minister of Agriculture came recently, alone side the governor of the CBN, and Chairman of the presidential task force for rice production, who is also the governor of Kebbi state and visited some of the farms in Ebonyi, suddenly the news exploded that a bag of rice in the state now sells for N8,000. This is one of the reasons I am here.
What really is going for Ebonyi rice is, it is not as chemicalised as rice coming from elsewhere. I have had the experience of visiting farms in India and Thailand where they use about 10 bags of NPK fertiliser and four bags of urea, etc per hectare. That is terrible.
Abakaliki rice is noted for having much stones. Have you done anything to address that?
Yes, we have. If it had remained the same quality, I wouldn’t have been here. I would have been too embarrassed to be here. The days of Ebonyi rice being filled with stones are gone. There is de-stoning machinery in place now. We polish the rice but not to the extent of imported rice. We polish to make sure that the film that attaches the husk of the rice to the grain is removed to some degree but of course, the nutrients and value of the rice remains. We know we are coming from a very negative background in terms of reputation of the rice, we have done a huge amount to remove that. I have not eaten anything other than Ebonyi rice in the last five years.
Talking about value chain, how many rice processing firms do you have now?
Ebonyi has put 30,000 hectares of rice farms under cultivation this year, wet season. And in every ward, we have a cooperative society. Each cooperative society has 25 members. There are 171 wards in the state. We built up individual small scale farmers up to 15,000 with help from FADAMA and IFAD and in each of the three senatorial districts we have massive large scale processing mills installed by the previous administration. What this administration is doing is to incorporate parboiling equipment into them. Beyond that, in most communities, we have small rice clusters with small milling machines that probably will mill only about 100 kilogrammes of rice per day.
Are you able to supply enough paddy for the mills?
Where do you get supplements from?
We don’t get paddy from any where except Ebonyi
How many people have you taken off the streets with this programme?
Ebonyi has a negative reputation in terms of the number of street hawkers in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and other places. There is now a cooperative process going on between Ebonyi state government and Lagos state government. The secretary to Ebonyi government came to Lagos in March this year and again in August to see his counterpart. What was done was to hold a summit where all these people were invited and a data base was created.
In all the cities we have done that. Going back home, all the Government technical colleges have spaces reserved for them and at the same time, there is available N250,000 for each of them who wants to cultivate a hectare of land. Based on the CBN estimate, you need N214,000 to cultivate a hectare but of course, the maintenance of the hectare will take between N30,000 to N40,000. That is in terms of Diaspora hawkers.
Those at home, the unemployed youths and women have a much larger programme. In this budget year, Ebonyi provided N4 billion specifically to expand from 30,000 hectares to 60,000 and to target women and unemployed people. The data base is being compiled as we speak because we recognise that there is no escape.
The augmenting element of the economy we would have had from NIGERCEM is taking time. There was this lock jam between the previous administration and Ibeto. But that has been resolved, the cases have been taken out of court, a new MoU has been signed so that Ibeto will properly take over NIGERCEM but before that is done Ebonyi rice is the only escape route.
On neglect of agriculture
The neglect of agriculture in the past is criminal. In each of the six geo-political zones, the federal government built strategic grain reserves, silos that would contain 100 metric tons of grains of whatever variety – rice, beans, maize, etc. The one that was built in Ezeilo, Ebonyi was built in 1979. Not one single grain has gone into those silos till today.
Now, the capacity of the one in Abakaliki could meet any food emergency for at least 18 months in the whole of the South- East and South-South geo-political zones. Nobody cared about it. The previous administration in Ebonyi spent N3.3 billion rehabilitating it but the facility is unused. When the minister of Agriculture visited the state in September, the governor passionately appealed for those silos to be handed over to state governments, we know what to do with them.
The food emergency that has hit the internally displaced people in North-Eastern part of Nigeria would have been addressed by these facilities without anybody going cap in hand to beg for food.