President Muhammadu Buhari has ordered the distribution of 150 truckloads of rice seized by the Nigeria Customs Service. The Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Mrs. Zainab Ahmed, disclosed this on Monday in Abuja, while talking to newsmen.
She said the rice will be distributed across the 36 states of the federation as part of the government’s social intervention programme aimed at cushioning the effects of coronavirus pandemic.
The Minister said that the 150 truckloads of rice have been handed over to the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs for distribution. She added that the president has approved the distribution of grains from strategic grain reserves across the country.
The Federal Government of Nigeria has been seeking ways to alleviate the hardship emanating from the outbreak of coronavirus. Efforts to contain the virus have resulted in curfews, total lockdown of some states and other measures that have restricted the general freedom of Nigerians and keep many at home.
Before now, the Nigerian Customs Service was notorious for destroying rice seized from smugglers.
But as the situation is breeding hunger due to the inability of Nigerians to stock food, the government is desperately looking for ways to provide for the people before hunger forces them to defy the stay-at-home order. And the seized truckloads of rice have come handy, and at the same time, it is believed to have exposed how poor the decision to shut the borders, and to place a total ban on rice importation is.
In October 2019, when Nigerian government decided to shut its borders totally, it was in a bid to stop rice smuggling into the country. The initial ban on rice importation had limited the quantity of foreign made rice coming into the country, but didn’t stop it totally, especially from the borders.
The federal government was determined to take that bold step as it was seen as a way to boost local production of rice and the whole agricultural sector. Gradually, the tons of rice coming into Nigeria reduced to almost zero, rice became contraband, and the price skyrocketed. Nigerian rice farmers got the overwhelming burden of producing more than twice their farming capacity.
At that time, the Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria (RIFAN) could only boast of 3.7 million tons of rice annually, when the consumption demand is 7.9 million tons. There was a huge demand gap and a little infrastructure to fill it.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), had earlier pointed at some of the challenges facing Nigerian farmers that need to be addressed to ensure food security. They range from the outdated land tenure system that constrains access to land, a very low level of irrigation development, limited adoption of research findings and technologies, high cost of farm inputs, poor access to credit, inefficient fertilizer procurement and distribution, inadequate storage facilities and poor access to markets and post-harvest losses.
These challenges were not addressed before the ban took effect, leaving farmers with inadequate mechanisms that has hindered the chances of bridging the demand gap. Hunger ensued, as the reality of it all hit home.
However, Nigerians pushed through it and adapted through continuous murmuring of half-filled stomachs.
Though as time passed, there were indications of improvement in rice farming. In 2019, the production was said to have moved up to over 4 million metric tons, an addition that was barely felt by the people as demand also moved up along.
There have been governments’ initiatives aimed at augmenting farming through some schemes designed to help farmers in the country, such as the Anchor Borrowers Scheme, a Central Bank of Nigeria’s programme designed to provide financial help to farmers. This among others has boosted rice production in the country. A number of big companies in Nigeria like Coscharis and the Dangote Group have also joined farming.
Nigeria’s rice demand in 2019 was just over 7 million tons. According to RIFAN, Nigerian farmers are now producing 8 million tons of rice which is enough to feed the nation, except that the reality at homes is telling a different story.
A 50kg bag of rice costs about N23,000, which is unaffordable in a country where the majority live below $2 per day. The current coronavirus pandemic has exposed the depth of food insecurity in Nigeria. The government’s resort to use loads of rice seized by the Custom shows that Nigeria is still far from food sufficiency, and the production of rice, the country’s staple food is yet to meet the demand gap.