Local rice farmers in Nigeria cry out as 38 million hectares of land waste away

In the deep jungle of Okada, a University town 48 kilometres north-west of Benin, the Edo State capital and seat of provide name of monarch one of Nigeria’s most revered monarchs – Oba of Benin, Omo N’ Oba Ewuare II, much of the local residents live on agriculture for work and food.

In this part of Nigeria’s south, known for its rich agricultural land, life is a daily drudgery of trekking over several kilometres to till tiny portions of farms amidst a vast jungle of greenery.
But Okada has a particular peculiarity. It is Edo State’s rice cultivation headquarters. At least, that was the town’s reputation. The local population of the town’s 17 villages are predominantly farmer.
It is a short journey from Benin through an expressway that is flanked by expanse of land as far as the eyes can see.
The jungle here spreads across the horizon like a sacred grove; vast, green and pristine.
It was learnt that this is not an expanse of sacred grove nor a forest reserve. It is just a large area of agricultural land no one wishes to cultivate.
This particular rice farm, jointly owned by Mr. Peter Andrew and a few other farmers who banded together to form a rice farmers’ association, is six hectares. It might be small compared to the expanse of land in which it stood. But for these farmers, it is their blood and sweat.

Andrew said he had cultivated rice for the past 15 years.

It is the most tedious form of farming he had ever engaged in, he said. But he has kept on going because rice is Nigeria’s most important food item.
 Despite the fact that Nigeria is the 11th highest consumer of rice in the world with an annual consumption volume of seven million metric tonnes, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, local farmers continue to suffer lack of capacity in production.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation put the country’s estimated production capacity at 2.8 million MT in 2016. The figure range is also corroborated by the United States Department of Agriculture, which puts it at 2.7 million MT.
In November 2016, the Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbeh, announced that rice production level had reached 3.5 million metric tonnes.
Meanwhile, the huge gap in supply is still enough to make Nigeria the second largest importer of the commodity in the world and number one in Africa.
The nation spends N646bn ($1.8bn) on rice importation annually at an average of $5m per day according to Ministry of Agriculture’s statistics, which the minister, Audu Ogbeh, has admitted is unsustainable.
Beyond rice, the country spends N7.9tn ($22bn) on the import of various types of food annually, the Minister of State for Agriculture and Rural Development, Senator Heineken Lokpobiri, said in 2016. To put this in contrast, Nigeria’s 2017 budget is N7.4tn ($20.2bn).
Meanwhile, the Federal Government has promised self-sufficiency in rice production in the country by the end of 2017.
Andrew told the Media that in the past, he and his group of farmer colleagues cultivated up to 30 hectares of rice annually. But gradually, as Nigerians favoured foreign rice, profit from local rice went down.
“This year is the lowest we have ever cultivated because it is becoming hard to put energy and resources into a farm that would yield little profit. When you remove the labour costs from the sales, you realise there is hardly any profit.
“There is no way you would convince Nigerians to buy your expensive locally produced rice even when it is nutritious and healthy. They would always prefer the imported rice that is cheaper.
“We sell to few Nigerians who still value and can afford the locally produced rice. Many Nigerians eat mere chaff in the name of imported rice but what choice do people have when they cannot afford the expensive local ones we produce? But on the other hand, what choice do we too have in determining how expensive our rice is when we know how much it costs us to cultivate?
“The money Nigeria spends in importing rice and other foods, if half of it goes to developing agriculture in Nigeria, people like us would feed this nation.

“For people like us, the different incentives government has put in place for farmers are just mere words. When we try to key into any one of those incentives, we see that the measures put in place to access such funds are such that the common Nigerians cannot get there.”