Taking A Cue From The Lake Rice Initiative

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The recent news about the arrival in markets around Lagos state of Lake Rice, a harvest of an agricultural business relationship between Lagos and Kebbi states is indeed heart-warming. The “Lake” bit in the brand name “Lake Rice” is said to be an acronym derived from an amalgamation of the first two letters in the names of the partners – “La” from Lagos and “Ke” from Kebbi state.

At a time when suspicion, insults and sometimes, outright hatred has become the pastime among Nigeria’s ethnic groupings, it is relieving seeing this collaboration. Not surprising, not a few Nigerians are excited about the development. An elated President Muhammadu Buhari, speaking through his Media spokesman, Mr. Femi Adesina asked Nigerians to recall that during the presentation of the 2017 Budget, he had envisioned a new era “in which we must grow what we eat and consume what we make”. The President urged other state governments to replicate the laudable example in LAKE Rice unto other staple crops and livestock products, pledging the support of the Federal Government.

Lake Rice

Although details as to the level of financial commitment, production level and the profitability of the collaboration are sketchy, it is the right foot forward. Predictably, thousands of Nigerian farmers in Kebbi state are kept employed. This is a thrilling deviation from the norm – keeping Asian farmers smiling to the banks while our teaming youths and farming citizens stay unemployed.

Researchers claim that Rice scientifically called Oriza sativa is cultivated across the globe with over half of the world’s peoples and cultures consuming the crop. Only wheat and maize are more cultivated than rice. Rice isn’t traditionally a popular Nigerian crop. The centres of origin of Rice are the far eastern countries of Asia like India, Thailand, Myanmar and China. Another specie of Rice, Oryza glaberrima also known as African rice, is said to have been domesticated in the inland waters of the upper Niger basin as long as 2000 – 3000 years ago. Over the years, Rice, which the Chinese term a sacred crop, has grown in importance. At a time in our national development, Rice used to be a crop of status – only afforded by the rich.

In Nigeria, increasing urbanisation has had Rice coming to the rescue of mothers in comparison with other food crops. It is easier to prepare. Rice is prominent in the foods of different Nigerian cultures. There is hardly any social event that wouldn’t be spiced with it. The modern restaurants and eateries, which are mushrooming in Nigerian cities, find Rice handy. There is also a growing interest in a local Rice delicacy – Ofada Rice that for decades was unattractive – thought to be less nutritious than polished and most times stale imported alternatives.

The importance of Rice has compelled commitment by different Nigerian governments. Activities fostering Rice production include among others: Increasing the hectrages under cultivation, increasing the frequency of production on available arable, supply of farm inputs, educating farmers on crop management, promoting research and distribution of relatively higher yielding varieties, establishment of processing centres, curtailing losses and employing efficacious processing technologies.

Despite these efforts at expanding Rice cultivation and boosting yield, the quantum of production is hardly enough to meet demands. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), Nigeria, which is Africa’s leading consumer of Rice, is “one of the largest producers of Rice in Africa and simultaneously one of the largest Rice importers in the world”.

The apex global food organisation claims that in 2008, Nigeria produced “approximately 2 million MT of milled Rice and imported roughly 3 million metric tons, including the estimated 800,000 metric tons that is suspected to enter the country illegally on an annual basis.” It is also claimed that Nigeria is the second largest importer of Rice in the world. Nigeria’s food import bill is estimated at N638.4 billion annually (about $4.2 billion). Of the amount, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture put N365 billion as the annual spend on Rice importation. This is in sync with claims by some expert that as much as N1billion ($6.4 million) is spent daily on Rice importation! Undoubtedly, this is a huge needless drain on the country’s foreign reserve.

Naturally, successive Nigerian governments have been quite irked by the huge spend on Rice imports, especially as there are potentials for meeting demands by producing locally. In the face of the country’s current economic challenge of scarce foreign exchange earning, it makes much sense to stem the drifting of resources by stimulating the production of Rice locally. This is why the collaboration between Lagos and Kebbi states to produce rice is much welcome.

It isn’t that there aren’t agricultural activities in Lagos state. Perhaps a personal testimonial about agriculture in Lagos state would be useful here. As a professional agriculturist, I had about a decade (mid- 1980s till mid- 1990s) of practice in Lagos state and later the former Ondo State. I worked as an Agricultural Officer in the state, overseeing Agricultural projects in Ayobo – Ipaja, Epe, Ikorodu and Badagry. I was priviledged to have been among the pioneering Farm Managers of the National Youth Service Corps Farms. The principal objective of the NYSC farms was to expose participants of the National Youth Service Corps scheme to the Agricultural sector which was seen as critical to liberating the nation from overdependence on oil. Apart from exposing these Youths to Agriculture, our brief as Agricultural Officers included Agro Processing, production of crops and livestock to feed communities nationwide.

In our time, the National Youth Service Corps had a robust relationship with the Lagos state ministry of Agriculture and its agencies – the Tractor Hiring Unit, the Farmers Inputs Supply Unit, the Agricultural Development Programme etc. The State Ministry of Agriculture had Tractor Hiring Units in the divisions, each coordinated by an Area Agricultural and Cooperative Officer. Each Tractor Hiring Unit used to be a beehive of activities. This unit always came to the rescue of the NYSC by augmenting the Tractors and implements we had on the Lagos NYSC farms.

There was a memorable moment in 1986 where I and a colleague Agricultural Officer alongside corps members harvested maize from the 10 hectare NYSC Farms, Ikorodu employing a Combine Harvester. The Combine went onto the farm, stripping maize cobs from stalks, tearing and shredding through different reels, augers and fans, hoppers and delivering the grains through the Grain Elevator mid of the Harvester. That experience simply emboldened and affirmed to us that the mega machine we view today on CNN (there was no CNN in the 1980s) and other international broadcast channels could also work in our clime. However, the challenge has always been how to avail the Nigerian Agriculturist and farmer, amidst the many challenges, opportunities to fully deploy energies for agricultural production that would rid the country of needless hunger.

There had been earlier efforts by the Lagos State government to contribute to the production of Rice. The state established a 20,000 metric tons per year Rice processing factory at Imota in Ikorodu Local Government. Prince Gbolahan Lawal, the then state Commissioner for Agriculture and Cooperatives said that the mill when operated optimally, is “estimated to produce between 350,000 and 400,000 bags of rice per year”. He also attested that Rice milled from the plant “compares with the best quality Rice from any part of the world”. According to him, the consumption of Rice in Lagos was one million tons per year, the state population being over 20 million. He put the consumption of Rice per head in Lagos at 34 kg per person per year – the highest in Nigeria. A major drawback of the plant is inadequacy of paddy to feed the mill. The local level of production is far less than the requirements of the mill. The alternative is external supply which could be expensive.

Local milling of Rice was popularized by the immediate past minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr. Akinwunmi Adesina in pursuit of the Agriculture Transformation Agenda of the Dr. Goodluck Jonathan administration. Some Rice brands in the country and the states where they are produced include: Ebonyi Rice – Ebonyi State, Ofada Rice – Ogun State, UMZA Rice – Kano State, Mas Rice Mill – Gombe State, Igbemo Rice – Ekiti State., ., Olam Rice – Nasarawa State, Anambra Rice – Anambra State, Labana Rice – Kebbi State, Mama Happy Rice – Niger State etc.

Agriculture in our nation is left in the hands of the peasant farmer who owing to sustained challenges operate at the subsistence level. They face daunting tasks which make agriculture unattractive to virile young men and women. Smarter nations create environments for large-scale commercial agricultural projects. In our peculiar circumstances, we can at least help the huge farming populace with technologies that can raise production levels instead of producing by combating the elements of nature with brawn.

A huge challenge to agriculture is availability of land for the agro production. FAO affirms this in declaring that the sector is faced with “many challenges, notably an outdated land tenure system that constrains access to land (1.8 ha/farming household)”. This situation is worse in Lagos state where the demand for residential, commercial and industrial property development is highest in the country. This demand has land responding to demand pull which price them beyond reach. The return on agricultural investment and the peculiar risk fraught demands of agro production put agriculture at disadvantage relative to other sectors which are competing for available land in Lagos.

Land is critical for agricultural production. It is one of the first challenges in prospecting for agriculture. It is also a major constraint to the youths who get attracted to the sector. Much as the Lagos state government has the resources and commitment to agricultural production, there is the huge challenge of availability of land and labour for agriculture. The labour force that could have been available for agricultural production keep being attracted to less stressful commercial and industrial sectors which offer relatively more money than afforded by the agricultural sector.

Lake Rice

In these circumstances, it made sense that the Lagos state government looked up the cost benefit analysis of agricultural production and opted for partnership with a friendly state up North. Putting it simply, Kebbi has land while Lagos has the finances. Both states simply exploited the areas of strength and faced the facts about their weaknesses. Thankfully, the outcome has put Lake Rice on tables.

For me, beyond Oriza sativa, the partnership could as well be extended to other crops, livestock and other business lines. So long as there is great care to ensure that the funds are well managed and the businesses efficiently ran. It must have been a great treat for those priviledged to have purchased the homegrown Lake Rice instead of usual stale imports from Asia.

This handshake between the north and south need be encouraged. Such collaboration and reasonable businesses should be encouraged. Relationships could be worked out between states in the south beyond the Niger and Benue Rivers. They could go east to west, west to the north, north to the east and east to the north.

Should this kind of collaboration be sustained, we will not only be reaping economic dividend and national economic redemption, but ridding our land of ethnic jingoism – the very bane to our national coexistence.