The sun is hot and harsh, above 38 degree centigrade in contrast to the humid, soft savanna plain of the rice farm. Under the scotching rays of the sun, Abubakar Hakimi, 55, weeds the rice plantation with accustomed dexterity, almost oblivious of the unfriendly climate. In between swings of the hand-knife, he responds excitedly to the reporter’s enquiries, without lifting his head, cutting the impression of a man without time to waste.
He says he is ready to unleash his harvest on the market anytime soon. He is motivated because he had profitable bumper harvest last year. Last year, he managed to have up to 35 bags of rice from his farm. This year, he hopes to harvest not less than 50 bags.
For Hakimi , this is the time for rice farmers and ‘no one should be left behind’, he says, as he removes weeds from a stand of rice plant while also directing workers on his two hectares of rice farm in Gorio Damana village, Birnin-Kebbi Local Government in Kebbi State.
Hakimi is not the only rice farmer in Kebbi that is racing to increase harvest and make more money for the family. Hundreds of thousands of rice farmers in the state are working to help reduce Nigeria’s dependence on imported rice and rice import bill said to be no less than $6million per day as of 2016 by Audu Ogbeh, the Minister of Agriculture.
In the wake of Nigeria’s quest for food security, Kebbi has become the hub for rice production, and it is the largest producer of rice in Nigeria. Rice production in the state has received a boost due to the existence of big rice mills such as Labana Rice Mill and Wacot, buyers that are already turning around the fortune of local rice farmers.
Labana alone produces 16 tons of rice per hour and 320 tons per day. And the rice paddies are locally sourced. “We require 160,000 tons of paddies per annum including our reserve “says Abdullahi Zuru, General Manager, Labana Rice Mills.
Since the advent of President Muhammadu Buhari administration in 2015, rice production has been on the increase in the state; the government has focused on food security and reduction of expenses spent on importation of food stuff which was as much as N1billion.
But the government’s desire to boost local production of staple foods such as rice was more than timely as according to William Mafwalal, Project Manager of Pro-Resilience Action (PRO-ACT), a European Union (EU) and Oxfam project, to ensure food security and resilience in Northern Nigeria, more farmers are embracing rice farming using modern techniques and improved inputs acquired under the project.
The PRO-ACT project is currently being implemented by Development Exchange Centre (DEC) in three local governments in Kebbi State ( Birnin-Kebbi, Jega and Dangu Wasaga) and four in Adamawa State.
Hakimi, like other farmers in Gorio Damana village, a predominantly rice farming community are products of one of the 70 farm field schools organized by Oxfam under PRO-ACT.
When the rice are harvested; he says, more than 50 bags are to be realized from the farm, unlike in the past when he struggled to realise just 20 bags despite the huge size of the rice field and time and other resources invested into the cultivation.
The truth is “we never knew how to plant rice very well and apply fertilizer to give us high yield,” he says through an interpreter with a broad smile on his face.
Fortune is smiling on him already, if he ends up harvesting as much as 50 bags of rice from the farm later in the year. Labana Mills and others in the state are taking bags of rice at the rate of 145 per kilogram whereas a bag contains 85kilogram. This translates to over half a million naira –N616250 for Hakimi.
In his 30 years of farming, according to him, ‘the current year is more promising for rice farmers in the village’ –they have not witnessed farming with such huge produce and with less efforts too.
“But their efforts have paid off because-they are learning new and modern farming techniques to cultivate rice and also have access to farm inputs, hitherto not available to them”.
Father of 14 children and two wives, life is much better for him after harvesting 30 bags of rice during the last dry season farming and hit the market with same. “Did you know that I usually struggle to get 20 bags from this large farm in the past?” he asks.
For him, life is becoming more enjoyable and affordable despite the huge size of his family as he is not only able to feed them very well now through proceeds from his farm, he has also learnt how to save for the raining days-
“I sold and fed my family well after selling my rice after the dry season farming. I made 30 bags from this same farm and I was surprised. I applied fertilizer and did modern rice farming technique which I never knew in the past”.
He reveals that through PRO-ACT project, farmers like him in the village have been taught how to pull their resources together as a group through Village Saving and Loan Association (VSLA) to help themselves.
The project-running from 2016 to 2020 targets 35,000 households and 280,000 individuals in which 50 percent will be women. In the two states, Mafwalal says, 3000 households and 70 communities are already benefitting from the programme.
“We never knew how to save money before now. As I’m talking to you, we have formed a group of 25 farmers and we contribute money every week.”
“Out of that money, we help ourselves through borrowing. For instance, I borrowed N5000 to be able to employ labourers to work on this farm”, Hakimi says.
For inputs, each member of the group, according to him got five bags of fertilizer which they applied on their farm and they were also members of Farm Field Schools; the real reason behind their bumper harvest. Oxfam plans to give out as much as 35,000 bags of fertilizer to these farmers.
“Yes, I knew about farming, but despite my long years of practice, there are things that I really didn’t know concerning rice planting, “he confesses
Not many rice farmers, he says, know that the common staple food ought to be planted in a water logged area and “some of us really didn’t know how to apply fertilizer and the spacing for the rice stand. But we were taught all these at the school which I have already taught others in the group as a leader”
Sharing his optimism for bumper harvest is 35-year –old Mohammed Lanso Gorio. He cultivates rice on two and a half hectare of land.
A member of Gorio Damasa VSLA group where members make contributions to collect loans for farming and personal use, Gorio says his yields from the farm this year will increase from 25 bags to 50 after applying fertilizer and deploying modern farming techniques handed down by Oxfam Extension workers.
With two wives and eight children to cater for, the young farmer is full of hope that when his peers from all over Kebbi State are turning in their produce into the waiting market created by the ongoing rice revolution, he will have many bags of rice to add to the silos.
“I have always farmed during the raining season, but now, I have learnt the dry season farming” he says. “In the past, what I used to get from the farm is about 25 bags of rice, but as you can see, the farm is doing well with all the inputs and efforts and things learned from Oxfam, what I will get from here will not be less than 50 bags when I harvest”.
WOMEN IN THE RICE REVOLUTION
Surprisingly however, women are not left out in the rice revolution; elsewhere in Tarasa village, Birnin Kebbi Local Government, Sadatu Mohammed, a widow and mother of eight is leading a group of 25 women in the rice revolution- besides having a joint rice farm, they have individual farmland where they also cultivate rice.
Though the women are yet to access the government’s loan facility despite submitting application under Anchor Borrower scheme, they are undeterred.
The Anchor Borrowers programme on dry season rice and wheat farming was launched in 2016 by President Muhammadu Buhari in Kebbi State.
The scheme, Godwin Emefiele, Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) said is aimed at creating economic linkages between over 600,000 smallholder farmers and reputable large-scale processors with a view to increasing agricultural output and significantly improving capacity utilization of integrated mills.
This, he noted, would close the gap between the levels of local rice production and domestic consumption, as well as complement the Growth Enhancement Support (GES) Scheme of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture by graduating GES farmers from subsistence farming to commercial production.
Accordingly, he said the CBN had set aside N40 billion from the N 220 billion Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Development Fund for farmers at a single-digit interest rate of 9 per cent-but these vulnerable women are yet to benefit from the government’s largesse.
With the Anchor Borrowers programme, 78,000 farmers were engaged to produce rice in the state. Each of them was given the required input to cultivate one hectare of farm. There are however, over 300,000 rice farmers in the state that were not captured under the programme, but are also producing rice on their own. These men and women are in this category.
Under the guidance of Aisha Gambo, an Agriculture Extension worker with Kebbi State Ministry of Agriculture who works with Oxfam to facilitate the PRO-ACT project, 40-year-old Mohammed’s women group is ready to hit the market big with huge farm produce.
They are breaking the barrier- the aged-long tradition that women must be at the background; seen and not heard, these women farmers, after acquiring new techniques are proud owners of many hectares of rice farms.
Tucked down in the bush after Tarasa Model Primary School, their rice farms are examples of modern rice farm-though they can barely read and write they measure the length of the plants each week, measure fertilizer before application and also did spacing of plants. All these, according to Mohammed, have given them impetus to hope for a bumper harvest later in the year.
She said, “We have experienced a lot of changes in the way we farm; we were not using tapes in the past to measure our plants, we were using hands to apply fertilizer, but now we use the cover of Coca Cola bottle to measure it”
On her own alone, she says that her farm is capable of producing about 35 to 40 bags of rice during harvest. That, to her, will bring succor to her and her eight children whose father died in 2016.
Gambo buttresses this: “They are doing fine, a place that is just 10×10 where they used to plant and harvest 10 to15 bags, now they are expecting more than 20 bags because of the modern ways of farming they have been taught”.
“Because of being in a community, we would go and look for a customer outside to come and see what they have so that they will sell it in good price. If they are alone, they can sell it anyhow. There is an agreement with Labana Rice Mill. Any amount of rice that the community has, we would just call them to come and pack them”.
This is definitely a time to make it for rice farmers in Kebbi as their produce cannot at the moment meet up with industrial demands- Zuru, the point man at Labana says despite the huge cultivation of rice by mill owners and farmers, supply of rice paddies cannot meet up with 160,000 tons of rice paddies his mill alone requires in a year.
Speaking on how the women have come to be champions of rice plantations, Gambo reveals that the women are more equipped more than ever to get the desired results on their farms. The women have been re-orientated to embrace farm business fully as against being idle at home.
“We are teaching the women how to embrace farm business fully because before now they were only farming without knowing what they were doing. We want them to realise that farming is not for them to just feed their family; they have to make money from it too. We gather them for farming business school where we teach them all the steps that can make them successful farmers” she said.
From the Farm Fields School, the women already know how to measure their land using string and stakes to measure land know the amount of the land they are going to start the farming with
“Besides that, we taught them how to determine viable seeds and the ones that are not viable for planting” Gambo said.
“We told them the measurement between plants because before, they will just scatter their plants without space or passage. Now, they know the good spacing technique for easy passage which is 20cm apart and we taught them how to apply fertilizer and not the old method they were using”.
Elsewhere in Danko Wasagu Local Government-over 300 kilometer away from Birnin Kebbi, the state capital, 56 year-old Leah Garuba has more workers on her rice and maize farms. With six children-three unemployed graduates, she is already braving the odds with rice cultivation despite being a widow.
According to her, she took loan from her VSLA group known in local language, ‘Upusu group which means Light has given her edge to expand her farm. She had always sought for loans from other institutions and paid back with high interest.
“This group helps me a lot; I hired more workers for my farm with the loan and the farm produce has multiplied” she said.
“I have bigger farms of rice and maize and I need big money because my husband is late and I have six children to cater for. In the past, if I get loan from cooperative societies, I pay in triple to settle the loan but this year, with the help of Oxfam, we were able to form this Upusu group where we help ourselves with loans and also get fertilizer from them”
“As we speak now, my family has no problem, because from the harvest, I just take two bags for our consumption and the rest goes to the market”
Before now, we didn’t know about saving because we are in a village,” says Teni Unana, another member of Upusu group.
“Now, I save my earnings from the farm every week and also able to borrow money to boost my other business” Unana adds.
The story is more fascinating at Tangaram village in the same local government where despite lack of access road and electricity, house wives known as Shinkafa group (Rice Group) are the key rice farmers there. Led by one Hauwau Abubakar, they formed a VSLA group to source for funds to drive their passion and also address family problems.
According to Hauwa Abubakar, each member of the group learnt how to save money and borrow to improve their farms. She says when Oxfam gave them farm inputs such as fertilizer to apply on their farms, their story changed completely. Since last year, they have been gathering their produce for buyers who despite the bad nature of the road to the village still come around.
Abubakar reveals that they are now able to support their husbands in taking care of the home front and their personal needs as a result of proceeds from their rice farms.
CAN NIGERIA SUSTAIN THE REVOLUTION?
Zuru says the future is brighter for both rice farmers and millers in Kebbi State, if the Federal Government sustains its efforts at boosting local production and also curb illegal importation of foreign rice. This, he said should be followed by final ban on importation of foreign rice.
He is optimistic that Nigeria can join the league of rice exporting nations in the next three years if the Federal Government acts decisively on issues threatening local production.
“Our borders are porous, this foreign rice is being smuggled in large quantities on daily basis into the country” he said.
“This foreign rice they smuggle, 90 percent of them have expired, they come to the border posts and re-bag them and bring them into the country, but if government can block these loopholes and then at the same time sustain its programme of assisting farmers with soft loan to produce paddy rice, then in the next two years we will not be thinking about importing rice any more”.
The Labana General Manager is not far from being right; according to Sahabi Augie, Chairman of Rice Farmers Association in Kebbi State, 88,000 farmers had become millionaires in Kebbi through the Federal Government’s Anchor Borrowers Dry Season Rice Farming programme. Rice farmers, he remarks would continue to make money, especially with the introduction of rice mills such as Labana and Wacot.
Under the Anchor Borrowers programme, 78,000 farmers were engaged to produce rice in the state. Each of them was given the required input to cultivate one hectare of farm. But, there are over 300,000 rice farmers in the state that were not captured under the programme, but are also producing rice on their own
“By the end of 2019, additional 250,000 millionaires would have been created in Kebbi through rice farming” he said. “There are over 300,000 rice farmers in the state that were not captured under the programme, but are also producing rice on their own”
This means that Nigeria is on its way to self-sufficiency in rice production and a major breakthrough in food security.