Rice Self-Sufficiency: Another Delusion?

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Any political party promising to sell rice at 2014 prices might sweep President Buhari’s administration out government resoundingly. Never underestimate the hunger chasing millions of Nigerians like an avenging angel.
When the government introduces good ideas in Nigeria, they come as brazen wayward prostitutes never as enduring industrious spouses. The stuff of quick fixes never endures. The latest new concept necessitating the governments interest in Nigeria is rice. A few years back, rice became the rage because of the focus then was on “[political] ricism” – the use of rice [and other items] by politicians to induce voters to make on the spot decisions to vote for them. Now the rage is “rice self-sufficiency” – restrict rice importation (by imposing 60% duties) and improve the local rice industry’s production capacity. Consequently, rice is much less affordable in Nigeria today than hitherto, and citizens are feeling the sharp pinch. Before anyone qualifies the policy of rice self-sufficiency, we need to ask if it is another serial prostitute in the hands of the government or not.

President Buhari now appears to be doing some substantial for the economy, making the nation “look inwards”. Nigeria is habituated to rice-eating, consuming 6 million metric tonnes annually (4 million metric tonnes imported) but can no longer afford the foreign exchange for $5 million a day bill for rice importation. The way to sustain Nigeria’s demand for rice is the nation should be able to grow its rice supplies. After all, Nigeria fed itself completely before colonisation and even at Independence. There is also talk of Nigeria becoming a rice exporter only if it were that simple.
There is nothing wrong with Nigeria being self-sufficient with food, and in fact, such should be unrelentingly encouraged. Press statements and energetic part-public support will not achieve an “Agricultural Revolution” that will establish total food security in Nigeria as it stands; it takes enormous energy, diligent planning and an astute investment. The costs [financial, human, organisational and transformational] of achieving such will be quite high, and Nigeria has to start somewhere someday, why not today? Nevertheless, the high costs have risks attached to the venture can lead to outcomes which range from great success to total failure.
The production and marketing rice as sold in the market is not about the supremacy of soil and climate [natural resources], but the value created and captured by way of mixing labour, capital, energy and enterprise resulting in desirable, consistent outputs. Industrial value creation in Nigeria is something that has eluded its march to development, and there are persuasive reasons for this. Let us look at the realities of rice farming/production, the prospects agricultural enterprise and the worldview of consumers.
Producing 6 million metric tonnes of rice a year is an immense challenge which necessitates asking many pressing questions. Who wants to do rice farming? Who wants to invest in rice production and marketing? Who is going to manufacture the equipment used in agriculture, producing, preservation, storage, packaging and transporting rice? Who is going to fund the research necessary for the development and sustainability of the Nigerian rice industry, from farm to end-use? These questions by consensus have been perennially dismissed as “grammar” by many Nigerians, politicians and citizens; perennially they say we are already producing rice and can do better.
Yet, Nigeria searches foreign markets with preferential import licenses to meet its rice demand. The country imports agricultural equipment and technology and fertilisers because it does not manufacture its own. Nigeria seeks research funding overseas because of its scarcity in the country. Schemes to get foreign loans and grants for agricultural projects exist because agriculture is an avoided cost for the government. The government, state and federal give massive landmasses for some agricultural production to non-African farmers because they are “more serious”. These are realities Nigerians cannot deny. What part of rice production and marketing is Nigeria not dependent on external resources? These are the serious challenges the government has to contend with untiringly if Nigeria is sincerely to become self-sufficient in rice production.
There is a cry for free enterprise in Nigeria, and we hear it. It is easier to become a millionaire from rice importation than from local rice production in every sense. Acquiring arable land, recruiting good workers, paying costs/salaries, getting agricultural permits, buying equipment and fertilisers, procuring seeds; arranging transport/logistics, building storage facilities etc. and efficiently managing/coordinating such to produce rice consistently is arduous work and extends beyond the farming season to 12 calendar months. Is it not more comfortable to go to a rice-producing country with $1 million, have a meeting with a rice exporter, place an order, make a payment then clear the rice containers at Tin Can Island port ready for sale; all just in two weeks flat?
The established entrepreneur at home will find it almost impossible to get a loan to finance his rice farming venture, but a rice importer with “connections” will not have such a problem. Also, there would be no moratoriums on loan repayments if the crop fails. The big incentive to make profits from rice marketing is to import it, not grow it at home. There needs to be a system of incentives established to encourage investment and enterprise in rice farming if Nigeria wants to cut down its reliance on imports sustainably.
How about quality and choice? Give average Nigerians a choice between locally made rice and imported rice at the same price, which would they choose? Xenophilia [the strong desire for foreign objects] is deeply entrenched in the Nigerian psyche and imported or made overseas always means better or superior. Made in America rice looks brighter, healthier, more uniform, and smells better (when cooking) than that which is “Made in Nigeria.” It is a sensory reality. To change such a “worldview”, expectation or preference will take some doing. Or else black markets for imported rice will take over pushing the price of rice out of the reach of the common man. Rice-smuggling is already booming.
This the new logic of the Buhari era, “Imported rice good, locally grown rice better.” The next few years will tell, and elections are not far off.
Grimot Nane

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