How Uncle Ben’s & Other Imported Rice Found Their Way Into Nigeria In Second Republic

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Workers unload 42,494 tonnes of Thai rice at the Tanjung Priok harbour in Jakarta January 25, 2011. Indonesia's state procurement agency Bulog is looking for at least 170,000 tonnes of Thai rice for delivery from January to March, a trader said early this month. The government has allowed Bulog to import rice this year to shore up falling stocks. REUTERS/Crack Palinggi (INDONESIA - Tags: BUSINESS FOOD)

For decades, I have been wondering how so many imported rice were allowed to flood the Nigerian food market unabated. The excuses I got were either flippant (to say the least) or untenable. Not until I stumbled on a classic write-up by Ray Ekpu (one of my favourite writers during the era of Newswatch Magazine). It sums up virtually everything I need to know.

I guess you will enjoy it too…

During the Second Republic there was some bit of cash to throw around because crude oil was doing its duty well: bringing in the dollars. But there was not much food, not for the stomach, not for the refuse bin. The government came up with an answer. It had promised during the campaigns to usher in an unspoiled paradise. Time to deliver. It decided to import rice from all corners of the globe.

At the cabinet meeting where the proposal was tabled a young Cabinet Minister made a suggestion that the government should invest the money in rice production rather than importation. He was just barking up the wrong tree. His sensible suggestion was brushed aside. It was easy to yield to the importation impulse because rice importers were already on the queue, salivating and those who benefit from the kickbacks were also on their own queues, salivating.

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Nigeria brought into the country rice from every conceivable part of the planet – Uncle Ben’s rice from America and Thailand parboiled rice from Thailand. We made rice producers in other countries rich and rice producers in Nigeria poor from non-patronage. Our ports were choked. The press named it the “rice armada.”

The young cabinet minister who made that heretical statement must have had a stab in the heart when the imported rice choked our ports. That man is, today, Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development: Audu Ogbeh.

Ogbeh brings to the table his experience in politics as chairman of the PDP and in Agriculture as a cashew nut and poultry farmer. He now has a chance to step up to the plate. He is now swallowing his own medicine by turning vigorously to the idea of producing rather than importing food which in the last three decades or so has gulped about $22 billion yearly of Nigeria’s scarce resources.

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I find the new agriculture architecture interesting. It seems to be organised in concentric circles. In the innermost circle is the Life Improvement Family Enterprise (LIFE), a programme that attempts to empower youths and women in the rural areas for subsistence farming. The target is to directly empower three million rural youths and women so that they can produce about 14 million metric tonnes of food in the 9,975 council wards across the 774 local government areas. The outer circle is populated by the state governments and private sector entrepreneurs who produce rice and other consummables in commercial quantity.

States such as Kebbi, Nasarawa, Ebonyi etc are already making big strides in rice production. Private sector entrepreneurs such as Aliko Dangote, Cosmas Maduka and Olam in Nasarawa State are weighing in with huge investments in rice production. The state governments and the big private sector companies are engaged in mechanised farming which will vastly improve food availability.

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The Federal Government’s Mechanisation Intervention Programme, we learn, involves the distribution of 6,000 tractors and 13,000 harvest and post-harvest equipment units to the various states of the federation. With all these plans in place Ogbeh believes Nigeria will be self-sufficient in rice production by the end of this year.

For many Nigerians imported products are an exhilarating status symbol whether the quality is better than the local product or not. Take rice for example. Locally produced rice is healthier and more nutritious than the imported, polished rice. Some people claim that the imported rice is less expensive than the local rice.

It is up to our rice producers to ensure that they do not price themselves out of the market. It is also the responsibility of government to ensure that the country is not flooded with inferior food items from abroad that are sold cheaply at the expense of good quality local products. Did you not read of jollof rice imported from India into Nigeria?

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