Alhaji Muhammad Abubakar is the Chairman of Umza International Farms in Kano, the farm which at moment concentrates mainly on milling hundreds of bags of paddy rice per day. In this interview, he explains how rice smuggling into the country will kill the nation’s rice industry if not urgently curtailed.
On our way to your farm, we saw a long queue of trailers waiting to offload paddy rice… cut in.
What you have seen is the paddy we are buying from all over the country from farmers. We started this procurement on 7th October, 2017 and since then, this has been the situation on daily basis. In a day, we receive 100 to 120 trucks of paddy. This is a significant progress over what we saw over the years since we were into production.
This year, there is tremendous increase in the production of paddy and the good thing is that, other states are trying to take over from the states that are known for producing paddy. We have seen a lot of progress from Kaduna, Kebbi, Zamfara, Katsina and Bauchi states. This is a very good and I must say that the quality of the paddy coming in is not like what we used to see because there is also tremendous development in that regard. The paddy is of good quality and long grain because the seeds have changed and the after harvest handling by the farmers has also improved to some extent.
Let’s talk about your milling machine. You said you receive over 100 trucks of paddy per day, what is the capacity of your mill?
We have opened a new mill which increased the capacity by 120 metric tons per annum which brings our combined capacity to 190 metric tons per annum. We are using a new brand of machine from Japan which is the best in the world now. There is none better than that in terms of rice milling. It will enable us consume more of the paddy and our requirement for paddy has now increased to an extent that we have to look for it from all over the country.
You talk about the improvement of the paddy coming from all parts of the country. As an expert in the industry, what do you think farmers can do to further improve their produce?
If you compare the paddy we bought from farmers seven years ago to what we are buying now, you will see that there is tremendous development in terms of the quality of the paddy which means there is transformation from the old seeds to better seeds. This is due to the intervention from the government, the improved seeds from seed companies as well as efforts of extension workers in training farmers on how to handle the paddy after harvest.
These changes have impressed me a lot because I have been buying paddy for over eight years and I have seen the quality of paddy when we started and its quality now. So I am sure there is a lot of development in that regard.
You have been interacting with some of these farmers as you get the paddy from them. What do you think are the challenges they face and where do you think the government and other stakeholders can come in?
Of course the farmers have challenges, but through the intervention of the government and so many groups, most especially the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), most of these challenges are being addressed. I must identify CBN because it has helped farmers with various intervention funds, especially through the Anchor Borrowers Programme (ABP); and also the Federal Ministry of Agriculture. But we still have a common challenge with them. Initially, they had challenge of market. They produced but didn’t know where to sell the paddy, now they have a market; there are mills like ours and others all over the country where farmers can sell their paddy at premium price. But still you can only sell if you have a buyer and a buyer can only buy if he can sell, so our challenge is their challenge and the ultimate challenge is the menace of smuggling.
You mentioned the issue of market, but the farmers complain that some of the millers take their paddy at giveaway prices. How would you react to this?
This has changed in the last four years because paddy has been on the increase. In the last four years, we were buying a ton of paddy for N60,000, today we are buying at N120,000. Last year, we bought it for as high as N150,000. So the claim that we are buying the paddy at giveaway price is a thing of the past, now, all farmers are getting better prices for their commodity and we thank God for that and they also have market where they can sell and get their money at once.
You have mentioned smuggling as a major challenge in the milling industry, how do you think this can be curbed?
This is a question I cannot answer because we have done everything humanly possible to tell the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) that smuggling is going on and it is a challenge to us, it can kill our industry, it can kill the farmers, but there is little they have done in that regard.
But let me be fair to the Comptroller-General of NCS, retired Colonel Hameed Ali. He listens to us anytime we want to talk with him and we can see the zeal and the effort of his office to make sure that they curtail this issue of smuggling. But I don’t think there is any other officer that is on the same page with the CG with regards to stopping rice smuggling into the country.
Which area do you think is prone to rice smuggling into the country?
There is no border in the country that is immune to smuggling because the smuggling is not hidden. You can go to the border as a journalist and you will see how the smuggling is taking place. People will come on motorcycles with five to six bags and they will pay the custom officials N500 per bag and if you come with a truck load, you will pay more.
So you see, it is not something that is done secretively. You go to the borders and you will see many motorcycles and vehicles bringing in bags of rice and this is what they do all through the day because they know no one is checking.
Some are saying smuggling in Nigeria has persisted because the smugglers still have a market to sell and partly because people still believe that foreign rice is better than the local variety in terms of quality and sometimes price….
We have mentioned it a hundred times that fresh rice cannot be compared with stale rice. Here in Nigeria, we don’t even have rice to stock for years and you should know that whatever any country will sell for you has to be something they don’t need. So what they are bringing in as foreign rice is rice that has stayed for about three, four years in their warehouses and everybody knows the principle of warehousing; it is first in, first out. They cannot produce rice this year and mill it and bring it to you. Compare that to what we have here in our mills which is usually from hand to mouth.
It is what we get this year that we mill immediately and sell immediately. So you cannot even compare the quality of local rice with that of foreign rice. I want to assure Nigerians that definitely Nigerian milled rice is better in terms of quality, nutrients and safety from health hazards.
Any hope for reduction in the price of local rice?
I give you from now to next year, you will see a reduction in the price of local rice because last year, as I told you, we bought paddy for N150,000 and this year we are buying at N120,000. Once we continue like that, definitely, we will reduce our prices to be at per or even far lower than foreign rice.