President Muhammadu Buhari’s ‘’rice revolution’’ is laudable. Before the ‘’crop rebellion’’, Nigeria spent about $1.65 billion annually importing rice from Thailand and India. But the country is not yet home and dry in food production. In December 2018, Godwin Emefiele, governor of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), said as of 2015, the country’s food import bill was $7.9 billion, but that the figure plummeted to $1.6 billion in 2018.
However in September, 2018, Audu Ogbe, former minister of agriculture, put Nigeria’s annual food import bill at $22 billion. The fact is, Nigeria was spending its future away importing food.
It is for this exigent reason Buhari’s directive to CBN ‘’to stop providing foreign exchange for importation of food into the country’’ is apropos. As he said, ‘’the foreign reserve will be conserved and utilised strictly for diversification of the economy, and not for encouraging more dependence on foreign food import bills.”
But what is our obsession with rice?
Do not get me wrong. The rice revolution is a good one. Nigeria’s dependence on foreign rice is whittling and our production capacity is burgeoning.
At the 25th edition of the Nigeria Media Merit Award (NMMA), President Buhari accentuated this feat.He said: ‘’Rice importation from Thailand fell from 644,131 tons in September 2015 to 20,000 tons in September 2017, representing a 95 per cent drop. Self-sufficiency in rice is so important because it is the most widely consumed staple in Nigeria, and also because Nigeria’s daily expenditure on rice for over three decades stood at $5 million a day!”
Also, figures from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) showed that rice production has increased from an average of 7.1 million tonnes between 2013 and 2017 to 8.9 million tonnes in 2018.
But rice is not Nigeria’s only biggest import. Some of the country’s other huge food imports are sugar, wheat and fish. Of the quoted annual import bill of $22 billion, these commodities bite off a chunk.
According to Adekunle Oresegun, director of Nigerian Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research Lagos, Nigeria spends about $1 billion annually on the importation of fish. This is about the same amount the country spent importing rice yearly.
“The truth of the matter is that Nigeria spends about one billion dollars annually on importation of fish. Because of our fish production deficiency in Nigeria, we want to increase the number of people who have the knowledge and skills to farm fish. The intention of this vocational training is to increase fish production,’’ the director said at a training in Ebonyi state.
He also suggested a remedy to this huge expense. He said: “There are two ways to approach it: to increase production by increasing the number of people into fish production; to genetically modify the fish for productivity. The metric tons of fish production in Nigeria are below the demand and consumption of fish and so we are still at the infancy in popularising fish production.’’
Really, with the immense aquatic resources of the country, we have no business spending $1 billion importing fish annually. We cannot live on rice alone; at least we need protein in the mix – on that bowl of white, sultry grain. Just as the government has scored a winning goal in boosting rice production, attention should be turned to other areas of agriculture where Nigeria has a comparative advantage – in the true sense of diversification.
Also, Nigeria spends $100 million importing sugar annually – the largest import bill for the product in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is despite the fact that the country can acquire the capacity to produce enough of the commodity to meet local demand. Currently, our sugar output only meets 7 percent of the demand.
In addition, wheat production is a sphere the government needs to zero in on; though I am aware there is some effort in this area. Nigeria spends about $4.2 billion importing the commodity. At the moment, local production is still infinitesimal when weighed against demand. This accounts for the rising cost of bread.
In the true sense of diversifying the economy, the government needs to linchpin areas in agriculture where we have comparative advantage to drastically reduce our food import bill.
We cannot live on rice alone.