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We Need Rice Pyramid On Our Dining Tables

Charles Okoh

Rice remains a staple food in Nigeria. It’s a mystery how a nation with such a fertile environment and clement climate has almost forever depended on importation of rice to feed its people, thereby depriving us of scarce foreign exchange. Before now, attempts by various governments to return the nation to the farm have remained a mirage as we virtually import everything we eat. Calls for or attempts at diversification of the economy through agriculture have remained only a topic for seminars, symposia and talk shops with several tons of seminal papers decorating various shelves in the country.

However, it was out of this desire to change this narrative that the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme (ABP), an agricultural loan scheme launched in 2015 by the Federal Government through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in line with its developmental functions as enshrined in Section 31 of the CBN Act 2007. It aims to create economic linkages between smallholder farmers (SHFs) and reputable companies (anchors) involved in the production and processing of key agricultural commodities. It was designed to boost agricultural yields, halt large volumes of food importation and address negative trade balance.

According to the CBN, the revised Guidelines addresses current realities and developments in the ABP, aimed at promoting best practices in the implementation of the Programme.

The core of the programme is to provide loans (in kind and cash) to smallholder farmers to boost agricultural production; create jobs, reduce food import bill towards conservation of foreign reserves.

The broad objective of the ABP is to create economic linkages between smallholder farmers and processors with a view to increasing agricultural output and ensuring food price stability.

The specific objectives include increase banks’ financing to improve agricultural productivity by creating an ecosystem that drives value chain financing; reduce the nation’s food import bill through import substitution and enhance domestic value addition; create new generation of farmers through innovative financing to support smart agriculture; and deepen financial inclusion and grow smallholder farmers from subsistence to commercial farming.

According to the guidelines by the apex bank, the targeted agricultural commodities covered under the Programme include cereals (rice, maize, wheat etc.), cotton, roots and tubers (cassava, potatoes, yam, ginger etc.), sugarcane; tree crops (Oil palm, Cocoa, Rubber etc.).

Others include Legumes (soybean, sesame seed, cowpea etc.), tomato, livestock (fish, poultry, ruminants etc.) and any other commodity that may be decided upon by the bank from time to time.

There is hardly any home where rice is not consumed in Nigeria. This perhaps explains the recent controversy around last Tuesday’s unveiling of one million bags of rice paddy stacked as pyramids in Abuja by President Muhammadu Buhari. According to Bashir Ahmad, presidential aide, it is the world’s largest rice pyramid, which is a collaboration of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) with Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria (RIFAN). The bags of rice used to form the pyramids were reported to have been planted and harvested from states across the country under the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme (ABP).

At the launch of the pyramids, Buhari said the measure would aid efforts at reducing the price of rice in Nigeria.

“I am indeed delighted that the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme continues to receive commendations, since its introduction six years ago, as it has become one of the reference points in the administration’s agricultural revolution effort,” the president said.

According to him, the country can boast of producing over 7.5 million metric tons of rice annually, with over four million farmers benefiting from the programme.

“The Anchor Borrowers’ Programme has so far supported over 4.8 million smallholder farmers across Nigeria for the production of 23 agricultural commodities including maize, rice, oil palm, cocoa, cotton, cassava, tomato and livestock.

“Today rice production in Nigeria has increased to over 7.5 Million Metric tons annually. Prior to the introduction of ABP, the average production in Nigeria between 1999 and 2015 was less than 4 metric tons annually.

“I am aware that the bags of paddy will be moving straight from here to rice milling plants across Nigeria, which leads to the release of processed rice to the markets by the rice millers. The measure will aid our efforts at reducing the price of rice in Nigeria.”

Perhaps, because the people have lost confidence in the government and its pronouncement on its acclaimed achievements in office, it was easy for some Nigerians to doubt the claim and before long there was a viral image of a rice pyramid with a wooden structure.

Clearly, the pyramid as launched by the president has nothing to do with the wooden structure pyramid that is everywhere on social media. But, I am at a loss as to why the Federal Government made a priority of erecting the pyramids with stacks of paddy in Abuja, when the president’s primary concern should be to erect the pyramids on the tables of Nigerians who are groaning under the weight of a very high cost of living in the country.

The president also promised significant output when two new mills are started in Lagos and Katsina. Most of the mills are at present scattered across the nation, therefore, taking the paddy to Abuja for photo op is not what the nation needs now. At what or whose cost is it to transport the entire rice paddy to Abuja when it would have been simply done in the states where they were grown? Somebody would have made a fortune transporting the rice from across the states to Abuja just for the cameras.

Of utmost interest now to Nigerians would be to ramp up the building of rice mills. This is where the private sector players can come to complement the efforts of the governments at resuscitating the economy by investing in areas that would create jobs and drive economic growth.  The rice mill would assist the country to meet the domestic demand for high-quality parboiled rice and attain self-sufficiency in rice production as well as create employment opportunities for thousands of youths both directly and indirectly.

The Federal Government should be commended for this initiative. However, it is not yet time for clicking of classes and popping of champagne until the entire value chain of rice farmers, rice processors, millers, researchers, marketers and other important stakeholders are captured to enable us get the full value of our efforts to make us serious rice producing country to give the economy the much desired relief it currently requires from its present status as a mono economy.

The priority now should also be ensuring that the staple food is on the tables of Nigerians and at affordable cost too. The race to be tagged as a rice exporting nation when the people cannot afford rice, which is well over N32,000 per bag, more than the national minimum of N30,000, would be counter-productive and unacceptable.

Recall that in 2017, the then Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbeh,  in his haste to export yam to the U.S., even when Nigerians could hardly afford it, attracted widespread condemnation from Nigerians.

And like Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa, former chairman of Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG) succinctly said, the launch of the rice pyramid by President Muhammadu Buhari is a show and another way of wasting government’s resources.

He said, “The law of economics says that demand and supply will fix a price. Today prices are still high so I don’t see how this show comforts me. The show will comfort me if I go to the market and the rice that used to sell for N32,000 now sells for N20,000.

“The people cannot buy rice and you went and brought padding. Do you know the cost of transporting these paddings to wherever they were brought from? The cost can buy rice for a lot of people,” he said.

While we commend the government for the giant step forward, it must be re-emphasised that exhibiting rice pyramids in Abuja is nothing but showboating, the real place to build the pyramids is on the dining tables of the people in order to assuage the hunger in the land.

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