Dr Frances Nwilene is the Coordinator of Africa Rice Centre in Nigeria, and in this interview with FEMI IBIROGBA, he expresses optimism that rice importation will be over in the country soon, saying paddy production to feed nascent processing mills and standardisation, smuggling, as well as other issues around price stability, are some of the challenges to be addressed.
The Federal Government has a plan to phase our importation of rice completely by 2015. Going by the record at your disposal, is it a reality?
It is clear that Nigeria is almost there in term of paddy production. Our estimated national requirement is about nine million metric tonnes, and currently we produce 8.9 million metric tonnes per annum in term of paddies. The other issue is processing and quality. These are where we think the most of the integrated processing mills coming into the country will help to address, to bring it to standards which can compete with rice coming from Asia.
You talked about quality. Are rice brands produced locally meeting the standard and taste of Nigerians who are used to imported brands of rice?
The locally produced rice is highly nutritive, because most of the active ingredients are still there because it is parboiled. Now, polishing and de-stoning local rice are the issues we are talking about now. But with the introduction of integrated mills into the country, considering about 19 the government has introduced to the country, we think, with that number, we should be getting very close to making our rice competitive with any rice coming from Asia. I think we are almost there.
You said about 19 integrated rice processing mills are in the country now. Are they entirely private sector mills or the government is directly involved, and are they producing to full capacity?
Most of them are owned by the private sector operators, but of course, most of them will tell you that they lack paddies to process and this is why the government is trying to put up staple crop processing zones, where farmers and processors will meet to dialogue and resolve the problem. Often, the processors tell us they do not want to buy paddies from the farmers.
The quality the famers give them is often not to the required standard. So, there is need for a meeting point to produce certain quality of paddy at a particular price per kilogramme. For instance, if a processor wants to brand, say FARO 44 or 52, he tells the farmers/out-growers in that locality to produce those grades of rice, because there are different species of rice.
Why are some varieties or species rejected by processors? Are people not buying a particular variety or what?
I think the problem is the drying, because processors are looking for specific moisture content of the rice and if the rice is not dry to that moisture content, it will spoil like every other fresh food. I think this is what the processors are looking for.
So it is not about varieties?
It is not absolutely about varieties. Of course, the variety the processor wants to brand is key because most of the times he has a plan to brand a particular variety. Is it FARO 44 or FARO 52? It depends on what he wants. So, he wants farmers to produce that for him at premium quality, which means the dry content should be up to 12% or 14%.
Will smuggling of rice into the country make the plan of phasing out its importation possible, considering our porous borders?
For me, there is nothing we can do about smuggling. The issue here is that if our own sector is competitive enough, when our rice becomes competitive, and Nigerians know that locally produced rice is more nutritious than other brands from Asia, which had been stored in their warehouses for years, Nigerians will begin to say they don’t want to eat imported rice, because our rice is competitive.
How do you mean by being competitive?
It means quality. There is no stone. It is long grain because most Nigerians prefer long grain rice and it has no bad odour. These are what we one talking of.
Considering the economic situation of most Nigerians, don’t you think the imported rice is cheaper than locally produced one?
We want our local rice to be high in quality as any imported rice so that importers will be discouraged, if it is high in quality, people will buy it. If our rice has no odour, or stone and it has long grains, people will have a re-think.
What variety will you recommend for farmers to maximise yields?
As you know, rice is a water-loving crop. We know that lowland rice gives more yields than upland rice, and we have specific varieties being promoted to maximise yields in Nigeria, for instance, FARO 54, which is popular in the North and even in the south here. It can compete with any rice from Asia because it has long grains and this is what the elite are looking for.
Are farmers embracing it?
That is what is in vogue now. Most of the integrated mills are promoting it.
How would you advise the government, as an expert, to go about the plan to make its plan work?
The essence is the synergy, the working together of stakeholders, because farmers want trust. Once there is guaranteed minimum buy-back, farmers will produce enough paddies at good quality. For instance, you tell a famer to produce FARO 44 and tell him every kilogramme produced would be purchased at N100 and when the farmer produce, you offer N80, he will not like that. But if you give him N120, he will go to produce more, because everybody wants to make profit. But in most cases, processors would say the quality is low, and would not pay the agreed price. So the farmers get discouraged. That trust must be there between the farmer and the processor.
Don’t you think there is a need for commodity boards to regulate the prices to tackle the challenges?
This is what we think now that a marketing board would bring about standardisation and fixed prices.
Are you optimistic Nigeria is getting there in term of rice production?
Yes, we are getting there. Rice is now a big business. There is no more land in Asia and many Asians are coming here to get land and produce rice. And most of them would still export back to their countries.
In which areas has Africa Rice Centre contributed to rice development and production in Nigeria and Africa?
All these varieties we are talking about were developed by Africa Rice Centre. FARO 44, 52 and others are our babies. Lowland NERICA 19 and lowland NERICA 34 are all varieties bred by the centre. We are part of the Agricultural Transformation Agenda (ATA), for we have three of our scientists seconded to the ATA. In term of policy, when the rice crisis started in 2008, we told the governments in Africa that it was coming. And we are very happy that it gave birth to the National Rice Development Strategy, which most African countries did not have before now.
What is the greatest challenge to paddy production and how can farmers tackle such?
The main problem now is bird control. Whatever we can do to control birds for farmers will be good, for that is number one problem. Other challenges are weed control and disease /pest infestation. For the bird control, it is a very complex problem. Now the use of video-tape has been discovered to be effective and it is used in Abakaliki. We have discovered that the best solution, however, is the use of nets, but how many farmers can afford nets? [SOURCE: TRIBUNE]