The Ebonyi State Commissioner for Information, Mr. Emmanuel Onwe recently visited THISDAY’s office in Lagos, where he talked about the potential of the state in rice cultivation. He however harped on the need for the federal government to assist the state meet its target. Shola Oyeyipo brings the excerpts:
There have been talks about Ebonyi State becoming one of the major rice producing states in Nigeria. What is the true situation of things in the state’s agricultural sector?
We have a good story to tell from Ebonyi State and that is the drive that Nigeria is making towards self-sufficiency and the crunch that has hit this county particularly hard because of the dwindling revenue from crude oil – that we have alternatives and some of those alternatives are things like rice, maize, cassava and so on.
And we have taken a step forward in Ebonyi in setting imitate on how we can use rice to begin to entrench the understanding that it is doable for Nigeria to become self-sufficient.
Last wet season, Ebonyi was able to put about 30 hectares into rice cultivation and that means as the harvest is going on now we could reach 200,000 metric tons of rice, which would more than adequately satisfy our domestic requirement within the state. And the ambition is to advocate that the federal government should take seriously states like Ebonyi; Kebbi State is doing well indeed. It is also producing large quality of rice but Kebbi is much larger than Ebonyi but the rainfall in Ebonyi lasts a longer period.
If we are able to go to the circle of not just producing in the wet season, but also in the dry season, then we will very quickly begin to meet the needs in markets like Lagos, Port Harcourt, Aba and Abuja. Those are our primary targets for 2017, 2018 and going forward.
What are the factors that may not allow you actualise your targets?
It is expensive to do dry season farming because it requires irrigation infrastructure which a state like Ebonyi cannot afford. In fact, why we are paying attention to agriculture now is because between Ebonyi and Ekiti States, it is always who comes last on the revenue allocation table. In the month of April, which was particularly terrible, Ebonyi received N1.45bn as allocation and from that you have salary outlay, subventions to universities, Colleges of Education, General Hospitals in the 13 local governments and so on.
On average, Ebonyi receives about N2.1bn monthly. It is really difficult to make any sort of predictive planning on the basis of such income base. So, that is why we are taking agriculture very seriously, and more importantly, taking the rice cultivation very seriously. It also provides mass employment among the low-skilled or non-skilled labour force in Ebonyi.
People often talk about the low quality of locally produced rice; do you think the rice from your state can compete with imported rice?
Absolutely! It is in fact better. Before, Ebonyi rice used to have one Achilles heel; it used to be stone-invested or populated by foreign bodies; that is no longer the case. If you eat it and you experience what used to be the narrative then don’t take anything we say very seriously at all.
The previous administration installed mega capacity rice processing plants in each of the three senatorial districts and what the current government is doing is to add the parboiling components to the equipment and these have greatly improved the quality of our rice.
How have you been able to provide financial support to the farmers?
The Anchor Borrower Scheme; Ebonyi borrowed N2bn last year to invest specifically in rice production. It has been going well but at nine percent interest rate. Rural farmers cannot afford interest rate of nine percent. We are hoping that the federal government will have programmes for rice producing states that would attract interest-free loans. It is absolutely viable! Even if interest would apply for the management of the funds, it should not be more than three percent in my view because this county spends a huge amount of foreign exchange of rice.
Anything above three percent will be very punishing to the farmers. It is not affordable and would make it almost as if the farmers are slaving for the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) or the federal government, especially when it is the CBN that puts the economics of rice production at N214, 000 per hectare. That is the kind of money most rural dweller can’t afford. But if we give loan to them for two to three years, I can guarantee you most of them will become self-reliant from the profits they will be making. They will no longer need the loans and they will continue to expand.
What is the viability of this rice production project?
Rice is a very big business in Nigeria. Nigerians consume six million metric tons of rice per annum spending $5bn, which is huge. That is the introductory element of what brought me here.
How has your governor been coping with the low income you talked about earlier and yet he is supporting farmers?
The governor has done something that a lot of us are shocked to see and that is meticulous elimination of waste. In fact, about four months ago, he increased workers’ salary by five percent. People underestimate what wastage means in government because there is no other way he could have done what he is doing. Every members of his cabinet are on their toes. Everything you do is properly and scrupulously scrutinised.
What would you say brought about the change we are witnessing in the rice production in Ebonyi State?
Where we were was almost nothing. As I said, those in the rural areas will farm and do what they have always done but has any attention been paid to their productivity, the sort of input they use and their profit margin? That is the question. What has changed is that the governor said no land should lie fallow; all land must be put into cultivation. Three crops were emphasised; rice at the top, maize, cassava and tomato.
He mobilised every Agriculture Professors in the universities and at the same time ensuring that the fertilizer blending plant we have in the state is revamped. The plant received about N200m subvention from the government to be able to produce the varieties of fertilizers we require, but yet it is not enough. The rice processing plants received N150m for rehabilitation – to have the capacity to process the rice we harvest. But above all, every ward in the state has cooperative societies, each has about 25 people which handed power directly to the members, so as the finds are disbursed, they get it.
About 50 tractors were purchased. Other inputs such as pesticides and herbicides were also purchased on a large scale and distributed to farmers. So that is what bought about the change; and leading from to front. I think Governor Umahi has the best rice farm in the last harvest season. I think he has attained about five metric tons per hectare in his farm – with the ambition to attain six. Every member of Ebonyi State Government has a farm. Then Fridays is now work-free so that everybody will go to farm.
In what areas would you want the federal government to assist your people?
That question prompts me to pay genuine tribute to the Minister of Agriculture. He visited Ebonyi three times last year and each time, he talked about rice, food security, self-sufficiency, but above all, about rice, so on his last visit, he promised to send some equipment the federal government is importing directly to Ebonyi State. So, Ebonyi State is going to get its own fair share.
It doesn’t end there. We need to have tractors that are affordable. The things that could help farmers prepare the feeds. We need to have irrigation infrastructure established or they should help us revive the ones that were established in the 70s – 80s that have been allowed to lie fallow because free money was flowing from Abuja and nobody was paying attention to these things. When the Minister came he identified some of the infrastructure and promised to help rehabilitate them. But in addition to that we are asking that the funds be made available in a way that it can be affordable to the rural farmers. Nine percent is too much.
What is your production projection if you get the best support from the federal government?
We know the quantity of rice consumed in Nigeria for now and in the next five years. Our target is that we want to pronounce 10 percent of that. So 10 percent of 6million metric tons is 600, 000. This year we are just producing about two percent to meet the need of Ebonyi people. By next year we hope to produce five to seven percent. By 2018 we should be hitting 10 percent. But the irrigation infrastructure is critical. Nature has taken care of wet season. We have rainfall between early March to late October or early November. That is enough to produce rice between July and October for the wet season but to produce from November to April we need dry season infrastructure. Just imagine it, if we are able to cultivate the same parcel of land twice this year alone we would have been hitting six percent. It is as simple as that.
The irrigation infrastructure is so keen, and don’t forget, to the South, Ebonyi is bordered by the Cross River, so that is a massive and permanent body of water that we can exploit to make irrigation possible.
We are hoping that the federal government will have programmes for rice producing states that would attract interest-free loans. It is absolutely viable! Even if interest would apply for the management of the funds, it should not be more than three percent in my view because this county spends a huge amount of foreign exchange of rice. Anything above three percent will be very punishing to the farmers. It is not affordable and would make it almost as if the farmers are slaving for the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) or the federal government, especially when it is the CBN that puts the economics of rice production at N214, 000 per hectare