Rice has become a very important staple food in Nigeria, as it features prominently in the menu of most Nigerians.
Observers recall that in those days, rice was a delicacy meant for Sundays and special occasions but its increasing availability and the growing liking of the people for rice has made it part of the everyday diet of most Nigerians.
They, however, note that virtually all the rice being consumed by the citizens is imported, in spite of the fact that rice is also cultivated and processed locally.
As part of efforts to reduce the country’s dependence on rice imports and improve local rice production, the Federal Government launched the Presidential Initiative on Accelerated Rice Production.
The government also intends to ban rice imports as from 2015, as the country is expected to have attained self-sufficiency in rice production at that time, in line with the goals of the Rice Implementation Action Plan.
But some cynics tend to wonder if Nigeria has the capacity to produce enough rice which could meet local consumption needs?
However, rice production plans were part of the focus of the 39th session of the National Council on Agriculture and Rural Development (NCARD), which was held in Enugu in March 2012.
At the meeting, Dr Akinwumi Adesina, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, said: “We have developed a taste for everything that is imported.
“Nigeria is now the largest importer of rice in the world, costing our economy over N356 billion per year, or N1 billion naira every day.”
One of the implications of this revelation is that while rice farmers in faraway countries like Thailand and India continue to smile to their banks, their counterparts in Nigeria continue to suffer.
However, Dr Uche Nwafor, a director in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, disclosed that Nigeria required about five million tonnes of rice annually to meet its domestic needs.
His words: “Out of the annual requirement of five million tonnes of rice, Nigeria was producing three million tonnes before the commencement of the Agricultural Transformation Agenda (ATA).
“So, the country imports two million tonnes of rice, valued at N356 billion, annually. No nation can allow this to happen without finding a means to get away from such a burden.’’
Nwafor said that the need to tackle such wastefulness led to the evolution of the Rice Transformation Action Plan, adding that there were empirical indications that Nigeria could achieve self-sufficiency in rice production by 2015.
“During the 2012/2013 dry season farming, the Federal Government supported 10 northern states in rice cultivation and irrigation; at the end, the10 states were able to produce 1.1 million tonnes of paddy rice from 264,000 hectares.
“Therefore, if you subtract the 1.1 million tonnes of rice produced by the 10 states from the annual deficit of two million tonnes, you discover we have just a little quantity remaining for us to hit the target,” he said.
Nwafor noted that the pioneering dry season rice cultivation support policy of the government has led to the production of high-quality paddy rice and massive job creation.
The director said that rice farmers in the South East geopolitical zone had also demonstrated substantial potential in rice production.
“Ebonyi now has the highest rice clusters in the country, which run into millions. Anambra, Enugu, Abia and Imo states are also notable rice producing states.
“When you add up what comes from these states to what we produce in dry season rice farming, you discover that the target has either been met or even surpassed,” he said.
Nwafor noted that Adani, one of the rice producing communities in Enugu State, had 5, 000 hectares of rice fields and 3,000 hectares of rice farms under irrigation.
As part of efforts to improve the quality of locally produced rice, the Federal Government has facilitated the establishment of integrated rice mills with de-stoning facilities.
Nwafor said: “For instance, Stine Mills in Anambra State, which is producing about 440 tonnes of rice per day, is one of the largest integrated rice mills in the country.
“Ebonyi is already packaging stone-free rice, which is now on sale in the international market,’’ he added.
He said that plans were underway to set up 14 integrated rice mills with a total capacity of over 850,000 tonnes per annum via a public-private partnership arrangement.
Besides, Nwafor said that the Federal Government had approved the establishment of staple crops’ processing zones across the country, adding that two of the processing zones were located in two major rice producing communities in the South East.
“The two sites are located at the two adjoining communities of Omor and Adani in Anambra and Enugu States respectively; but because of their location, the two processing zones will now operate as one processing zone,” he said.
He said that the Federal Government appointed the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) as consultants for the project.
“UNIDO has been contracted to produce a master plan for the project and the consultants have embarked on missions to consult with stakeholders on the modalities of the project,” he said.
Nwafor said that the project, when completed, would have a multiplier effect on the country’s rice production capacity.
He noted that apart from boosting rice production, the project would facilitate the emergence of other subsidiary companies, while the overall results included wealth creation as well as employment and income generation.
All the same, Mr Patrick Ayogu, the Permanent Secretary, Enugu State Ministry of Agriculture, said that Enugu State had eight major rice producing communities.
He listed the communities as Ibite-olo, Amaechi- Idodo, Oduma, Nome, Ugboka, Nkerefi, Ehamufu and Adani.
He noted that Adani Rice Mill in Uzo-Uwani Local Government Area had the capacity to produce 45,000 tonnes of rice annually, adding that governments at various levels had shown appreciable commitment in efforts to boost rice production.
“We have an irrigation canal in Adani, which was damaged some years back, but the state government has been striving to reactivate the canal and hopefully, it will start functioning within the next few months.
“As soon as the canal begins to function, we will have irrigated rice cultivation and that means we will have an opportunity to plant rice two or three times in a year; thereby, contributing immensely to the national rice output,” he said.
Moreover, Ayogu said that the state government recently facilitated the disbursement of N2 billion loans to farmers, adding that the majority of those who applied for the loans were rice farmers.
Mr Charles Ifeanyi, a lecturer at Madonna University, Okija, however, said that for the government to attain its goals in rice production, tangible efforts should be made to revitalise river basin development authorities across the country to boost irrigation activities.
“There is the challenge of irrigation facilities staring us in the face. The major assignment of river basin development authorities is to make water available for irrigation purposes.
“Government only has to put in place conditions that are conducive to the evolution of an agriculture-driven economy to facilitate the work of our agriculturalists. This will also boost the realisation of the various agricultural policies of the Federal Government.
“In addition, the government should provide tractors and other equipment that would ease crop growing for our farmers,” he said.
Ifeanyi urged all tiers of government to form a synergy in efforts to ensure that all the moribund irrigation facilities across the country were promptly rehabilitated.
Mrs Chikodi Afam, a rice farmer in Adani, underscored the need to motivate the country’s farmers to enable them to have good yields.
She conceded that the Federal Government’s Growth Enhancement Support (GES) had been particularly beneficial to rice farmers because of the provision of high-yield rice seeds, fertilisers and other farm inputs.
Nevertheless, Afam stressed the need for increased government intervention in the provision of irrigation facilities, access roads to rice fields and tractors for rice cultivation.
To many rice farmers across the country, however, the recent developments in the agricultural sector are quite cheering.
Observers, nonetheless, urge the government to fast-track the implementation of rice cultivation and milling projects, so as to ensure that plans to outlaw rice imports by 2015 will not have a negative effect on the citizens, particularly those who are fond of eating rice.