How Abakiliki rice farmers navigate rough patches to become millionaires

…despite challenges

“Abakiliki rice” is a popular brand in Nigeria. However, it does not just refer to rice grown in Abakiliki, the Ebonyi State capital. For the records, Abakiliki has only a total land area of 1,033 km square, which is insignificant for commercial rice production. This explains why Abakiliki rice now refers to rice produced in any part of Ebonyi State.

Historically, rice was introduced by former colonialists in Abakiliki, Afikpo and Ohaozara- all in Ebonyi State – in 1942. This was necessitated by acute food shortages witnessed during the Second World War. According to an article entitled, “The Politics of rice production in Nigeria: The Abakiliki example,” Uche Okonkwo, Victor Ukaogo, among other authors, explained that the colonialists first planted the Asian long-grain variety that originated from Guyana. Incidentally, the seeds planted in the three local governments in 1942 have grown into a multi-million naira industry that sustains many families.

The big numbers

Our reporter investigated the earnings of rice farmers in Ebonyi State. This was not a straightforward enterprise due to the inability of some farmers to guess exactly how many bags of rice they could produce at the end of each planting season.However, our investigation found 84 associations/cooperatives dealing majorly in rice production in Ebonyi State, with at least 40 members in each group. This means no fewer than 3,360 farmers produce rice as their priority crop in the state. There are several other associations whose members produce rice and other crops too, but this story focuses solely on associations/cooperatives with rice as their priority crop.

Based on interviews conducted with over 30 rice farmers in Abakiliki and Izzi, two major local governments where rice is produced in large quantity in Ebonyi, every rice farmer belonging to an association averagely produces 20 bags of 50kg size in each harvest season. There are two harvest seasons for rice farmers – May/July and September/November. This implies that a rice farmer averagely produces 40 bags in the two harvest seasons, putting the total number of bags produced by members of the 84 associations annually at 134,000.

Prices of 50kg of destoned Abakiliki rice varied during market research which took several weeks, but the average price obtained by the reporter was N33,000. This therefore puts the total revenue of farmers belonging to 84 associations/ cooperatives at N4.44 billion.

Confirming some of the numbers, President of Ebonyi Union of Farmers, Evangelist Eze-Williams Maduka, told the reporter that “the 84 associations have about 40 members who are producing the rice eaten in the state and taken to all parts of the country. We are strong and determined despite all the challenges on our way.”

Cost of production always an issue

Revealing the revenue or earnings alone does not tell the whole story. The reporter tried to identify cost components of Abakiliki rice production. Rice farmers who spoke with the reporter identified six to seven items worrying players in Ebonyi.

To cultivate one hectare of rice farm to produce 40-45 bags of 50kg rice, the farmer needs to engage two workers who will be paid N6,000 per day or N42,000 for one week. The farmer requires two bags of fertilizer at the cost of N60,000 ((N30,000 per bag). The farmer will equally embark on selective clearing ( cutting or control of vegetation or trees by hand, herbicide, or mechanized equipment that minimises soil compaction) using a bottle of chemical that costs N3,000. Depending on the location of the farm, transport fare for 45 bags of rice can cost up to N90,000 (N2,000 per bag) while milling costs up to N100,000.Selective cutting chemical

Hence cultivating one hectare of rice can cost up to N295,000 per planting season. However, if everything works well, the farmer can earn up to N1.49 million in revenue, which leaves a profit of N1.195 million.

“The more the hectares the lower the cost,” said Secretary of Rice Growers Association in Ezza North Local Government Area of Ebonyi State, Ms Esther Onwo.

“However, those who cannot afford fertilizers or who buy cheaper brands may not get up to 35 bags from a hectare of land. The richer you are, the better chance that your plantation will do well,” she added.

Navigating stormy waters

It is hard to tell the status of Linus Oghoke by his looks, but he is a multi-millionaire rice farmer. He hails from Ndinwike village in Izzi Local Government Area of Ebonyi State. He cultivates 20 hectares of land each planting season and produces 800-900 bags of rice within the period. For the two planting seasons, he can go as high as 1,800 bags.Linus Oghoke

He uses about 33 bags of fertilizer each planting season and 60 bottles of Agri Force Extra chemical to carry out selective cutting.

“I employ 28-30 persons to work for me on my farms, thereby creating jobs for our people,” he told the reporter. Oghoke has children and a wife, Adlin, who manages the farm with him. His Ndinwikwe village borders Cross River State, south-southern Nigeria, and it takes at least an hour to ferry his produce by truck to Abakiliki town and more than two hours to Enugu, the former capital of the southeastern Nigeria.

“I can do more than 20 hectares of land, but my biggest challenge is the high cost of fertilizer. Last year, I bought a bottle or gallon of fertilizer for N28,000 but the price is now between N30,000 and N32,000. No one knows whether the price will even remain the same next week,” he said in mid-July.

Oghoke has always tried to mitigate the impact of high fertilizer prices on his bottom-line. He does that by sometimes using animal dung, compost and green manure, especially when fertilizer prices are high. Animal dung contains a broad range of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium as well as micronutrients such as copper, manganese and zinc (Zn), according to a Canadian agricultural document. Green manure comprises plants that are grown specifically for soil improvement. They are all considered good for plant growth.

The downsides of animal dungs are that they smell and can attract flies. They may also contain pathogens and seeds from unwanted plants, according to Treehugger, which focuses on vegetation. Farmers also say they are not as effective as NPK fertilizer.

“But they are cost-effective and can improve your profits,” Oghoke added.

Rising fertilizer prices

The price of a 50kg bag of NPK fertilizer has risen since late July 2023 when the reporter spoke with Oghoke. A 50kg bag of Indorama Urea Fertilizer on an online platform, Jumia, cost N55,000 on August 24, from N48,000 in late July. Nitrabor Soluble Fertilizer sold at N35,000 per 50kg bag on Jiji.com from N32,000 in late July.

A 50kg bag of Golden Fertilizer 15:15:15 +10 sold at N45,000 on Jiji.ng on August 24 from N40,000 in late July, while the same bag of 20:20:20 went between N35,000 and N45,000 on Jiji.com.

In 2018, a 50kg of most NPK fertilizer brands sold for N6,000. However, this has risen by 483 percent in five years, hurting several smallholder farmers.

Nigeria’s former Agriculture Minister, Akinwumi Adesina, had introduced the e-wallet system to track farmers like Oghoke and cut fertilizer prices, but the initiative died when his principal, President Goodluck, lost re-election in 2015. Since then, fertilizer prices and availability have gone from bad to worse.

“Apart from fertilizer, we lack tractors and sophisticated tools to cultivate and harvest rice. This makes the work laborious and slow,” he added.

Unfazed by low purchasing power

Benjamin Nwanyim is a pastor and rice farmer at Nwabuluofia village, Ominyi, in Izzi Local Government Area. He cultivates 10 hectares of land every planting season, but his major challenge is also the rising fertilizer prices. However, he is also worried about low purchasing power of his consumers.

“When you finish working, selling becomes a problem,” he said. It takes a minimum of one hour to move tricks of rice from his town to the state capital.

“Sometimes, getting a vehicle to places where you have your consumers is a major challenge,” he noted.

Consumer purchasing power has fallen monumentally in the last eight years in Africa’s most populous nation. Nigeria’s local currency, naira, has depreciated by over 73 percent to the dollar since 2015 in the official Exporters and Importers Window, but its value has dipped more in the parallel market where the majority of businesses access foreign exchange.Benjamin Nwanyim

Similarly, from 8.5 percent in July 2014, headline inflation has risen to 24.08 percent in July 2023, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). Inflation numbers have tripled in the last nine years, as incomes remain largely static. An American investment firm, JP Morgan, said recently that Nigeria’s inflation could hit 28 percent by end of 2023. This is hitting hard on 39 million small businesses, including smallholder farmers.

However, Nwanyim is confronting the problem by planting other crops in his farm. He does not only plant rice but he also cultivates other crops such as potato, plantain and yam. This enables him to hedge against the risk involved in rice production.

“There is always a way out. I do what is known as crop rotation, meaning planting different crops in the same area,” he disclosed. “That helps me to raise enough money for the next planting season and to feed my family,” he further said.

Nevertheless, Nwanyim asked the Nigerian government to deploy fiscal and monetary policies to tame inflation while increasing economic activities to support smallholder farmers like him.

Road is dilapidated

One of the major challenges facing farmers in the agrarian Izzi Local Government is poor road network. The road linking Izzi Local Government capital, Iboko, to communities in the council area leaves much to be desired. Vehicles are stuck, and motorcycles are forced to skid as a result of heaps of mud dotting the road.

The road has been in a sorry state for more than 20 years. According to a farmer and pastor, Mr Chukwuma Ani, a Catholic priest from the community, Rev Fr Godwin Uguru, had secured agreements with foreign support groups for the rehabilitation of the road. The groups wanted to rehabilitate the road as a form of support for the priest who had been faithful to them. Unfortunately, the priest could not secure an agreement of the Federal Government, forcing the support groups to retreat, Ani said, lamentably.Ndiukwa Road

Ani said the poor state of the federal road linking Ebonyi and Cross River State was hurting farmers by ramping up their logistics costs.

“This is why it takes N2000 to move a bag of rice from all the communities here to the local government headquarters at Iboko. This is going to be higher with the rising petrol prices,”he noted.

The Nigerian petrol market was deregulated in late May 2023, with the country’s new President Bola Tinubu discarding an opaque and expensive subsidy regime. This has pushed up petrol prices from N194-N197 per litre to N617-N700 per litre.

In spite of these challenges, Ani and other farmers in Izzi Local Government Area have found a way out. Many of them now have motorcycles with which to ferry some bags of rice to the markets where they are needed.Chukwuma Ani

The process could be laborious but they help them to save costs.

“I can carry two to three bags in a motorcycle to Iboko or even Abakiliki. While returning, I will get a passenger to pay N1000 -N2000 depending on where they are going. This makes the cost of logistics seem insignificant to us,” he said.

“You may need to go to town 15-20 times, but it is cheaper,” he noted.

In spite of this, he asked the government to assist farmers in cutting production costs in order to reduce rice prices.

“The price of rice will fall if our cost of production falls. This could have an impact on inflation and cost of living,” he said, stressing the need for the government to rehabilitate the road.

Sourcing capital

Livinus Igboke is a rice farmer at Ndinwikwe village in Izzi Local Government Area. He farms three to four hectares of rice every planting season but can do more with bigger resources. Apart from fertilizer, he is hard hit by high cost of capital. He told our reporter that lack of finance was hurting several smallholder farmers in Ebonyi State.

However, he said he had found a way out. He belongs to a corporative organisation where all members contribute certain amounts each month. Each member in return receives a large sum of money during the planting season.Livinus Igboke

“This is how we survive the lack of capital in this area,” he noted.

He admitted that some farmers benefitted from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN)’s Anchor Borrowers Scheme but said many like him did not.

Small-scale businesses are starved of funds by the Nigerian financial system. Rising inflation in the economy has forced the CBN to raise the monetary policy rate – the benchmark interest rate – from 11.5 percent in March 2022 to 18.75 percent in July 2023. Banks and other financial institutions are allowed to set their interest rates for businesses. Rates in banks hovers between 20 percent and 28 percent, according to findings from various banks.

“The interest rates are way too high. We need to have a transparent programme that can enable farmers who know nobody to have access to cheap funds in order to bolster their businesses,” Igboke said, adding that lack of mechanisation in the area was making farming uninteresting, laborious and unattractive to youths and investors.

Land tenure system, a clog in the wheel

Land tenure system refers to how land is owned and managed. In Ebonyi, land is owned by individuals and families. Several individuals and families are reluctant to lease or sell large expanse of land to commercial farmers or deep-pocket investors at Izzi and other local governments in Ebonyi State. This has not only stalled commercialisation of rice farming in the state but also hurt revenue prospects.

Stephen Obenku of Ndiurukwu village plants rice on just one plot of land. But that is because he is on an inherited land. He said he could do more with a better land tenure system that would enable him to own more hectares of land.

“I know I can do more with better land laws as well as support in terms of fertilizer and capital,” he noted.

However, Obenku has tried to beat the challenge by leasing small farms for a few number of years. It is difficult to get families or individuals who are willing to accept that option, but he goes all out for it.

The Land Use Act of 1978 “vests all land comprised in the territory of each State in the Federation in the Governor of that State and requires that such land shall be held in trust and administered for the use and common benefit of all Nigerians in accordance with the provisions of this Act.” Several governors have abused this privilege by allotting farmlands to themselves.

“Most of the land in the South-East Nigeria are thick forests and you must have a vast land if you want to do 100-200 hectares of land farming. Thus explains why I am asking the government to amend the Land Use Act to free land for agriculture,” said President of Allied Farmers Association of Nigeria, Dr Austin Maduka.

Farming is subsistent

The reporter found that farming is mostly subsistent in the communities visited. Several farmers use hoes, machetes and bare hands due to lack of finance and poor land tenure laws. These generally affect their capacity to produce enough food that can enable them to remain sustainable, experts say.

One of such farmers is Stephen Obenku of Ndiurukwu village, He works with his wife on a plot of land using crude implements due to lack of funds. This has an impact on his overall productivity.Stephen Obenku

He only produces four bags of rice every planting season, amounting to merely N132,000. This is insufficient for the hard work he puts into the farm business.

Though Friday Uguru plants up to seven hectares at his Enyibichiri village, he told the reporter that what a machine could do for an hour, he would perform in three days.

He said many farmers would be able to produce more with more sophisticated equipment.Friday Uguru

“Again, rice is grown all-year round in some places in the world, but ours is twice a year depending on the rains. With investment in irrigation, we can do better,” he added.

In spite of these, Uguru makes effort to beat this challenge. He sometimes hires sophisticated equipment such as tractors from Iboko, the local government headquarters. They are expensive, but they make rice cultivation seamless and efficient.

Government intervention not enough

Ebonyi State is Nigeria’s fourth largest rice producer. However, the state government’s support for farmers has been minimal. The immediate past governor, Engineer Dave Umahi, allocated N3.197 billion out of N139 billion budget to agriculture in 2023, representing merely 2.3 percent of the total. The previous year, the government had allotted N2.57 billion out of N145.41 billion total budget to agriculture. This represented a paltry 1.77 percent of the total. Annual budgets to agriculture since 2015 were less than five percent, as more attention was paid to other areas, especially infrastructure.

Ebonyi State Procurement Portal contains a list of projects awarded in the state, but the only major contract awarded by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development was for the construction of concrete lined drain at Abakiliki Fertilizer Plant which cost N8.342 million.

However, a director in the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources denied these findings, claiming that “a lot of contracts were awarded by Governor Dave Umahi and the ministry provided various support for farmers, including seedlings and fertilizer.”

The director, who preferred anonymity because he was not authorised to speak, added that “the governor championed the CBN Anchor Borrowers Programme in the state, which helped our farmers.”

To find out what the current governor Francis Nwifuru has in stock for rice farmers, the reporter contacted Chief Press Secretary to the Governor, Mr Monday Uzor, but he declined to comment. He directed the reporter to the newly appointed Commissioner for Agriculture and Natural Resources, Princess Nkechinyere Iyioku.

However, Iyioku, who was inaugurated alongside 34 other commissioners in June 2023, did not answer questions regarding the concerns of rice farmers in Ebonyi State.

Way forward

Experts and leaders in the agriculture sector want the current government to take proactive steps to revivify rice farming in the state.

President of Allied Farmers Association of Nigeria, Dr Austin Maduka, said apart from pushing for the amendment of the Land Use Act, there was a need to begin to pay attention to commercial agriculture in the state.

“We need to change the subsistent nature of rice farming in the state. Farmers lack the resources, the land and the technical know-how. People need to have access to farmland and to finance. Intervention comes sometimes but they are not timely. If I am supposed to plant in May and you give me fertilizer in July, that may not be of any value for me,” he noted.

“We need to go back to the e-wallet system. This will enable farmers to use their wallets and secure fertilizer at cheaper rates,” he added.

A group named Agric Budget Plus Cluster recently asked the Ebonyi State government to raise its budget from 2.3 percent to five percent. 

The cluster lead person for Ebonyi State, Ms Nancy Oko- Onya, urged the present government to offer more support for farmers.

“In Ebonyi, we are asking the state government to increase the agric budget of Ebonyi State from 2.3 percent to 5 percent, and that means an additional 2.7 percent.

“We are asking for this to increase agriculture, to increase the practice, to increase the output to reduce hunger, poverty, malnutrition and deaths in the State. …Abakaliki Rice is known nationwide. So, all we are asking is to let government increase the budget on agriculture to 5 percent. What the state has as budget is 2.3 percent and we are asking for an additional 2.7 percent.”

For President of Ebonyi Union of Farmers, Evangelist Eze-Williams Maduka, “the land tenure system does not allow farmers to commercialise.” He called for an arrangement that would allow farmers to have access to large expanse of land.

“We also need to have access to specialised, low-interest funds. This is the only way we can expand,” he added, while calling for the rehabilitation of poor road networks in some parts of the state.

A farmer in Abakiliki, Ms Grace Ishienu, who is also a teacher, said the Nigerian agriculture sector needed new technologies and innovations.

“We need trainings on modern technologies that are used in other countries. It is possible to track your farm with your phone or computer. It is also possible to use IT and other modern methods to fight erosion, flood, and other issues. We need those technologies here,” she said.

For the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN)’s Director-General, Mr Segun Ajayi-Kadir, monetary and fiscal authorities must tame inflation to raise people’s disposable incomes. He said raising the interest rates would not solve this problem but adoption of a mix of policies.

“It is evident that the continuous and consistent increase in interest rate is not yielding the desired growth in the economy. The Nigerian economy remains fragile and bedeviled with numerous challenges that inhibit growth. Therefore, the monetary authority needs to pay closer attention to the policy mix, bearing in mind the parlous state of the economy, especially the effect of a high MPR on the economy,” he noted.

This story was originally published on www.dataphyte.com, which also funded the work.

+ posts

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Recent

The Ultimate Managed Hosting Platform
Load WooCommerce Stores in 249ms!

More like this