Nigeria looks to ‘white gold’ for eco­nomic re­cov­ery

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

Hamisu Haruna and his men are bent over, turn­ing the earth un­der a re­lent­less sun. The work is hard in this im­pov­er­ished part of north­ern Nigeria but the har­vest will be good. “In the last two years my yield has jumped to 35 bags of rice against the 20 I was get­ting in pre­vi­ous years,” Haruna, who is in his 40s with craggy fea­tures and a wooden hoe over his shoul­der.

“Rice farm­ing has greatly im­proved. I have had bet­ter yield and bet­ter price in the mar­ket,” he told AFP at his farm at Dawakin Tofa, on the out­skirts of Kano. Ris­ing rice pro­duc­tion is one of the few pos­i­tives of Nigeria’s re­ces­sion, which is the west African coun­try’s worst in 25 years. To­day about 5.7 mil­lion tons of rice be­ing are pro­duced every yearthree times as much as a decade ago.

“We are now liv­ing a white gold revo­lu­tion,” said Fran­cis Nwi­lene, the Nigeria direc­tor of the AfricaRice re­search cen­tre. “Peo­ple un­der­stand that oil is not some­thing Nigeria can de­pend on any­more.” The po­ten­tial is un­de­ni­able. But de­spite hav­ing vast tracts of fer­tile land, Nigeria-the largest con­sumer of rice in Africa-is also one of the world’s big­gest im­porters of the food sta­ple.

In the Kano re­gion, the GreenPro fac­tory shifted from spe­cial­iz­ing in flour and poultry to white ce­re­als four years ago. “Rice pro­cess­ing is by far more prof­itable than flour and chicken feed,” said pro­duc­tion man­ager Sal­isu Saleh. “Rice is a ma­jor food sta­ple in our so­ci­ety which only few can live with­out.” In a sign of rice’s para­mount role in Nige­rian so­ci­ety, a “Jollof price in­dex”-named af­ter a pop­u­lar savoury fried rice dish-was launched by an ad­vi­sory firm in June to mea­sure food in­fla­tion.

Un­com­pet­i­tive

With do­mes­tic de­mand ap­proach­ing 7.8 mil­lion tons per year, al­most a quar­ter of Nigeria’s rice comes from abroad, mainly In­dia and Thai­land. Rice is shipped through the Lagos port or by road from neigh­bor­ing Benin, which shares nearly 800 kilo­me­tres (500 miles) of por­ous bor­ders. “Smug­gling is a ma­jor issue which dis­cour­ages lo­cal pro­duc­tion,” ex­plained Nwi­lene. The gov­ern­ment has said it be­lieves Nigeria can be self-suf­fi­cient in rice pro­duc­tion within a cou­ple of years and is try­ing to plug gaps from cheaper im­ports. Small-scale farm­ers, who make up the ma­jor­ity of the rice pro­duc­ers, face nu­mer­ous chal­lenges, not least ac­cess to land. Pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties are also in­ef­fi­cient and costs high, while there are not enough ways for farm­ers to com­mer­cial­ize their prod­ucts. With fer­til­iz­ers and ma­chin­ery, Haruna es­ti­mates he could farm “four times the cur­rent field”. “I have a large farm but I can only cul­ti­vate a frac­tion be­cause of my lim­ited re­sources,” he ex­plained.

To boost lo­cal pro­duc­tion, Abuja banned rice im­ports by land in 2015 and launched an am­bi­tious aid pro­gram over­seen by the cen­tral bank tar­get­ing some 600,000 farm­ers. In the arid north, new ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tems that al­low farm­ers to har­vest twice a year in­stead of just once dur­ing the rainy sea­son have been in­tro­duced.

Dan­gote in­vests

Nigeria’s eco­nomic cri­sis has pro­vided a boost for rice. As global oil prices hover around $50 a bar­rel, the coun­try needs to re­duce costly im­ports and boost ex­ports to in­crease gov­ern­ment rev­enue.

Faced with a se­vere short­age of for­eign cur­rency, Abuja has se­verely re­stricted ac­cess to dol­lars-nec­es­sary to pay for im­ports-and has re­peat­edly talked up the mer­its of lo­cal agriculture, which ac­counts for 24 per cent of GDP. The rush for “white gold” is now at­tract­ing some of the coun­try’s big­gest names in agribusi­ness. Nige­rian ty­coon Aliko Dan­gote, who made his fortune in ce­ment, an­nounced at the start of this year that he wanted to in­vest sev­eral bil­lion dol­lars in three north­ern states-Ji­gawa, Zam­fara, Sokoto-to es­tab­lish com­mer­cial rice farms and build a dozen pro­cess­ing fac­to­ries.

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