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May 2024


By Dele Soboale

“We have tried everything else; we might as well try the truth”

Robert Ardrey, 1908-1980, in AFRICAN GENESIS

Ardrey in that book was attempting to draw the attention of the developed world to the truth they were evading. That Africa was the birth place of mankind. My mission, today, is to warn Nigerians that, inadvertently, we have driven ourselves into a dead end, regarding food production. One crop, RICE, now is having such a disproportionate influence on our assessment of food availability and security than is in our own interest; now and in the future.   

At the risk of boring readers, it is important to restate, once again, that my experience with rice, in the North, was quite extensive. It included managing a modern rice mill in Sokoto, maintaining a 1050 hectare farm, engaging over 10,000 contract growers, getting involved in developing eight different varieties of the grain for different geographical zones of  Nigeria, the Fadama project and lobbying for the construction of the Goronyo Dam in Sokoto State.

  Even as I threw my body and soul into rice in late 1980s to early 1990s, there was this nagging feeling that the nation was betting on the wrong crop; or, at least, was relying too heavily on it. In virtually every zone, rice in the 1980s, on account of government support, was substituted for other crops which hitherto provided us with immense competitive advantage; while, with rice we were at great disadvantage all the time. It is difficult to pin-point the time we took the decision nationally, if we ever consciously did, to replace food items which sustained us for thousands of years with rice. But, with the benefit of hindsight, and its 20/20 vision, it was a wrong decision. Part of our current predicaments with regards to food supply had been brought upon us because we did what we should not be doing; we left undone what we should be doing. And, the truth has deserted us. All our current efforts will not solve our problems because they are wrongly focussed. Let me provide some data which will help us out.

  The three largest grains produced worldwide are: rice, maize and wheat. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, FAO, they account for almost 50 per cent of global intake of carbohydrates. Rice alone contributes 21 per cent.  So, that would suggest that we should focus on rice. But, when we realise that the top three producers –  China (212.8 million tonnes), India (195.4 million tonnes) and Bangladesh (56.9 million tonnes) – are  so  far ahead of Nigeria (8.4 million tonnes), it should be obvious to all of us that we have turned the economic principle of comparative advantage on its head. Nigeria cannot compete on rice production. All the nonsense about Nigeria producing enough for its people and exporting is just that – nonsense. The economy of scale advantage possessed by others already precludes our closing the production gap to becoming a rice exporting nation for decades – if ever.

  That brings me to my reason for writing this article. Primarily, it is clear to me that nationally we have allowed a crop which was a minor provider of calories to become our mini god. A day after this article was started, there was Breaking News; informing the world that seven people were killed while rushing for rice offered for sale at N10,000 per 25kg bag. To me, that was double tragedy for Nigeria. First, it was indisputable proof of the depth of destitution in Nigeria today. Second, as a farmer that tragedy has drawn to my attention how grossly mistaken we were to have allowed rice which was not indigenous to us, and on which we suffer serious competitive disadvantage, to dominate our lives. We were not rice eaters on the dawn of our history. We consumed a wide variety of food items which actually provided more calories than rice per kilogramme.

  I returned to Nigeria in 1974, after ten years in the USA; and as Marketing Manager of Bristol-Myers Laboratories, immediately went to war to establish SIMILAC infant milk powder against the giants – COW&GATE, ENFAMIL etc. In August 1974, the farthest I have travelled outside Lagos was Ibadan. By August 1975, I have covered all the states and Local Governments. Every regular traveller in Nigeria has his top priorities – where to obtain fuel, where to eat and where to sleep. I mastered all three very quickly – painfully, I might add. One thing however remains indelible in my mind. There were vast areas of Nigeria where you could hardly find somebody offering rice for sale. That was the way we were. How we stumbled into becoming rice eaters is still a mystery to me.

What were we eating before rice became king?

“Do you think it a small matter to do wrong that would harm your innocent children hereafter?” – Horace, 65-8 BC

My generation of Nigerian leaders and our elder brothers before us did many things wrong. But, perhaps the worst blunder committed was the deliberate and inadvertent error of getting us addicted to rice and wheat products. Food first should be the policy of every government. That also means being very careful in selecting the food items governments will promote. Rice became our dominant source of carbohydrates and is threatening the stability of government on account of our mental and physical laziness. The unexpected inflow of dollars in the early 1970s induced us to outsource our food supply and sustainable security to other nations.

  Uncle Ben’s Rice led the way; other rice brands from abroad followed. Eventually, wheat based products crawled into the country and gradually, in additio

n to bread, we accepted pasta and other items as food. Indomie, which nobody knew about in 1975, has crowded out cassava based food items which were the main-stays before the Second Republic. I was in Kano, when Babangida was persuaded to launch the Wheat Programme in the late 1980s. As a member of Kano Club, I was familiar with some of the officials assigned to work on the project in the state. Almost none of them believed in it. But, there was money to be made deceiving the FG that Nigeria could indeed become self-sufficient in wheat production. Over 30 years after, where does Nigeria stand globally?    The facts should shock all of us.

Worldwide in 2021, about 770 million tonnes of wheat were produced. The top five producers were: China (137m), India (110m), Russia (76m), USA (45m) and France (37m). Nigeria in that year produced a miserable 37,000 tonnes. Obviously, when those collecting FG subsidy to grow wheat tell the Nigerian President that this country will soon become an exporter of wheat, they know they are deceiving government. If it has taken us almost thirty five years to reach 37,000 tonnes, how many centuries will be needed to reach 2 million tonnes – which is the minimum a nation must achieve to join the league of exporters.

What is to be done?

“Tell the truth and let the devil be ashamed”

We must re-order our priorities with respect to the food items we actively promote. Here is why. An African study has revealed that food preference in the continent, including Nigeria, is as follows: cassava, maize, millet, yams and rice. Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of cassava (60m tonnes); the nation is also the largest producer of yams (70-75% of global output), second largest producer of sorghum (6.7m tonnes) and also second largest grower of millet behind India. Clearly, we have missed the road in our march towards food security. We have abandoned the crops on which we have competitive advantage totally. QR Code

Published Date: April 30, 2024

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