Thursday, April 1, 2010

Finally, the Rice Revolution is Here

Rice is one of Nigeria’s most popular staple foods. Unfortunately however, the production of this popular food falls far short of demand, leading to large imports and the attendant food insecurity. But, as the Federal Ministry of Agriculture prepares to launch a major national strategy to combat the rice challenges, TAIWO OLAWALE writes that the revolution that would save rice production may have finally arrived here is no gainsaying the fact that rice has become a major staple in Nigeria. Over the years, it has taken over as the favourite food of many, beating other staples such as maize, yam and cassava to the number one position. In fact, it has become so popular that most Nigerian families eat it at least once every day. So, if anybody is talking about food security in Nigeria, rice must definitely take a front row position. And, it is not just in the area of food security that rice is important. It is also very important to the country’s economy in two major ways. In the first place, paddy rice farming is a major source of livelihood for farmers. Secondly, its production or lack of it has direct effects on the country’s importation bills. So, if there is adequate rice production, scarce foreign exchange is saved. On the other hand, scarce foreign exchange goes into rice importation when there is a shortfall in local production. Unfortunately, there is always a shortfall in local production. According to available statistics, the country’s estimated annual rice demand is put at five million metric tonnes. Placed against an estimated annual production average of about 2.21 million tonnes milled product, there is an annual deficit of 2.79 million tonnes (about 57 percent of demand), which is bridged by importation.More often than not, there is an increase in annual rice production, but consumption is also increasing annually. The National Bureau of Statistics estimates that yearly per capita consumption of rice, which stood at 15.8 kg from 1981 to1990 reached an estimated 27 kg in 2007. Unfortunately, during this period, self-reliance decreased from 87.4 percent to 71 percent in 2007. So, the continued rise in consumption dwarfs any marginal increase in production. With a scenario like this, one does not need to be an expert to know that the country would need to import millions of tonnes of rice to bridge the yawning gap between demand and supply. The importation of rice, a major staple is not just a big economic challenge; it is also a major challenge to the overall food security of the country. The problem becomes even more challenging when one realises that in this country of 150 million people, agriculture remains a key component of the Nigerian economy. One way or the other, agriculture provides employment for about 70 percent of the active population and currently contributes about 40 percent of the Nigerian GDP. But consistently over the years, the sector has continued to perform below its potential. With a land area of 923,768 square kilometers, the country has a total of over 79 million hectares of cultivable land out of which about 4.6 million hectares are suitable for rice production. Unfortunately however, only about 1.8 million hectares or 39 percent is currently utilised for rice cultivation in spite of the fact that rice is the fourth major cereal crop after sorghum, millet and maize in terms of output and cultivated land areas. This means that Nigeria has, over the years, failed to realise its natural potentials in the areas of local rice farming, production and marketing. But, how can the country tap into the seemingly limitless potentials available in the areas of rice farming and production? Can the country meet the rice per capita requirements of its citizens and even go on to turn the commodity into a major foreign exchange earner? A lot has been said and done by different governments at different levels with little or no change. This has led to a conclusion in many quarters that only a revolution can bring about the kind of changes that would lead to self-sufficiency in rice production. This is where a major gathering which is scheduled to hold in Minna, the Niger state capital next week becomes significant. According to a press release from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources, a major plan for tripling domestic rice production, improving indigenous processing capacity and enhancing the marketability of rice grown and processed in Nigeria will be launched in Minna on Monday. The initiative, the release explained, is the major thrust of the country’s National Rice Development Strategy (NRDS), which was developed in 2009. The NRDS is part of a global initiative known as the Coalition for Africa Rice Development (CARD). The CARD initiative was launched at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD IV) in May 2008 with the sole aim of doubling rice production in sub-Saharan Africa within the next ten years. CARD was jointly developed by the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). According to the conference documents, the CARD initiative is expected to be implemented “in full respect of African ownership and leadership embodied in the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP), and with strong links to existing structures, programmes, networks and initiatives such as Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), and the African Rice Initiative (ARI).” Nigeria is one of the twelve pilot countries selected for the first phase of the CARD programme implementation. And, each of the 12 countries was required to develop a National Rice Development Strategy as the first step towards achieving the CARD objective of doubling rice production by 2020. The country has been working diligently on the strategy since then. Monday’s presentation is expected to be the beginning of a revolution that would triple rice production in the country by 2020. The NRDS, which will be presented to the public by Governor Babangida Aliyu of Niger State, outlines the plan for transforming the production, processing and packaging of rice, which is a food item of choice for most households in rural and urban Nigeria. The main thrust of the strategy is to increase rice production in Nigeria from 3.4 million tonnes to 12.85 million tonnes within a decade. This expected increase is nearly 300 percent. One of the immediate effects of the strategy, if faithfully executed, would be that the country would save more than $500 million expended on rice importation annually. It would also impact positively on food security, job creation, balance of trade, poverty reduction and national productivity. Engineer Moses Adewuyi, the Director of Agro-processing and Marketing in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources described the strategy most succinctly when he declared that, “Now we have a holistic strategy for harnessing the potentials of a multi-billion Naira sector for the benefit of our people and our country. This strategy focuses on all points of the rice value-chain and provides the missing link for the development of this vital sector.” According to the NRDS, Nigeria is the highest importer of rice in Africa, and the second highest in the world. The strategy document however notes that the country has a huge but untapped potential for rice production and processing. According to the NRDS, only 39% of the 4.6 million hectares of land suitable for rice production is under cultivation; less than 50, 000 hectares of the estimated 3.14 million hectares of irrigable land is used for rice; and, on the average, less than half of the total amount of rice paddies grown in the country is processed. To address these gaps and improve rice production and processing in Nigeria in a sustainable manner, the NRDS is prioritizing three areas of intervention. The first area is post-harvest handling and processing. There would also be massive intervention in the area of land and irrigation development and paddy production while the third area of intervention would be in seed development and other production inputs. In the area of post-harvest handling and processing, the strategy would be to support the establishment of modern rice processing mills “that will deliver high quality parboiled milled rice that can compete favourably in both domestic and export markets.” Under this strategy, there are also plans for surveys to generate data for effective planning; conduct training for scientists, extension workers and farmers on latest techniques and best practices; focus on development of standards and grades for quality assurance as well as the undertaking of advocacy and branding of domestic rice “to convince Nigerian consumers that the domestic rice industry can deliver commodity that is comparable to imported rice.” Under the second priority area, the strategy is to expand land under cultivation for rice through clearing of more land, increase of farm power through mechanisation, and the introduction of public-private partnerships for better management of under-utilised irrigation schemes in the 26 states which constitute the 11 river basin authorities in the country. For seed production and input development, the strategy will be to subsidise and increase access to quality inputs, provide support to research institutes to produce breeder, foundation and certified seeds, introduce hybrid and high-yield rice varieties, and make chemicals and fertilizers available and affordable to boost rice production. In addition to all these, the NRDS advocates for the creation of a better policy environment for rice sector development. The plan is expected to be funded by the Nigerian government and its development partners. Now, most people would wonder why the NRDS should work where other policies have failed. But quite a number of stakeholders have expressed confidence in the workability of the document, saying that it is indeed the beginning of the rice revolution Nigeria needs to realise its rice production potentials. First, they point to the painstaking processes that went into its production. According to a release signed by the Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Alhaji Salisu Aliyu Gusau, the strategy was developed from a workshop organised last year by the National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA), “to harness the contributions of all stakeholders on how to transform the rice sub-sector. The workshop was sponsored by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), with representation from other development partners, including the World Bank, USAID, World Food Programme, AfDB, UNDP, and NEPAD.” Secondly, the country’s development partners have hailed the document as a pragmatic document that can solve the rice problems of the country in ten years. They are so impressed with its intervention programmes that they have recommended it as a model for other participating countries. So, as the document is launched in Niger State, which is the highest rice producing state in the country, a major revolution that would signal rice production sufficiency may be about to start. With this revolution, the country may move quickly from being the biggest importer of rice in Africa to the biggest exporter in ten years. With the NRDS, the rice revolution is finally here. And since rice is a major staple, the country may truly be on the way to achieving food security.