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[News] Kebbi’s Rice Revolution

The emergence of a 100,000 metric tonne rice mill in Argungu, Kebbi State, is set to make Nigeria self-sustainable in rice production. Solomon Elusoji who toured the facility, reports

Sometime in June, 2016, President Muhammadu Buhari, in a Ramadan meeting with members of the business community, announced that his administration would make the country self-sufficient in rice production within 18 months. The President was piqued that the country was still importing its number one staple food in the face of a foreign exchange crisis. Nigeria, Africa’s largest consumer of rice, devours about six million metric tonnes of rice annually, but half of that volume is mostly imported from India, Thailand and Brazil.

Several months down the line, the President’s promise has been buoyed by the emergence of a 100,000 metric tonne capacity Wacot Rice Mill in Argungu, Kebbi State. It’s the first rice mill project to be executed and completed during the Buhari administration and its ambitions are staggering.

Rice mills dot the country, but the world-class posture of Wacot’s will set it apart. Occupying 10 hectares of land, it cost 10 billion naira to build. It has about 10 silos with the capacity to store 18,000 tonnes of rice paddy and warehouses for storing an additional 12,000 tonnes of rice paddy. The mill is stocked with machines from world renowned machinery suppliers like Buhler, Petkus, SKF, Thermax and Silos Cordoba and includes a fully equipped lab to test all parametres for ensuring consistent quality of its rice products.

The Rice Mill has also been built with the economics of the environment in mind. It will generate electricity from husk (the hard protecting coverings of grains of rice), thereby ensuring that all by-products from the processing are well-utilised. It will generate 1 MW of electricity via turbines to reduce dependence on the national grid. It also has a fully equipped water treatment plant that takes care of its liquid waste before they are discharged into the community, where they can be safely used for irrigation.

The mill is managed by Mr. Amit Gupta, an Indian business manager with eyes for detail, who believes that Nigerian is an “amazing” place to work and live. He acknowledges that the mill is an important project, but he is more focused on working with local farmers to increase their rice yield. “The mill is the more visible parts of our initiatives,” he said, “but what we are really excited about as a company is the work that we do with farmers on the ground.”

The mill’s parent company, Wacot (West African Cotton Ltd, a subsidiary of the TGI Group), has successfully worked with Nigerian farmers for decades. It was the first company to do an Out Growers Model and Farmers Assistance Scheme with cotton farmers in Katsina. The success of those programmes has helped the company to become one of the largest producers and exporters of cotton in West Africa. Wacot has its ginnery (Continental Eagle) in Funtua, Kastina State and has a capacity for over 50,000 metric tons of seed cotton per season.

Now, the company is extending its expertise to increasing yields among rice farmers in Argungu and beyond, since more farmers need to increase their yield if the country is to meet its self-sufficiency target. Although the building of the mill only started in February 2016, since 2013, Wacot has been engaging with farmers via two training schemes: the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and the Yield Enhancement Techniques (YET). The company has worked with over 4,000 farmers and distributed inputs – high quality seeds, fertilisers, agro-chemicals – worth 144 million naira.

“We did it because we felt there is a value chain where we can participate in, where we can grow with the country, and then over a period of time the value appropriation will come automatically,” Gupta said. “Sometimes you don’t enter a business to make money, you enter a business because the industry is growing and you can be a key player in ensuring the growth and the well being of the industry. Automatically, by virtue of being the first mover, you will get certain benefits later on.”

The choice of Argungu as the site of a Rice Mill is not a random one. To the people of the community, rice farming is like a second nature. “When I was a child, I did not know that human beings eat anything other than rice,” a retired Justice of the Supreme Court who is now the Chairman of a rice farmers association in Kebbi State, Justice Uthman Mohammed, told THISDAY at his residence in Argungu.

Although rice has always been grown in Argungu, it has not always been commercially viable. In the past, a 100kg bag of rice cost between 3,000 to 4,000 naira. The farmers did it just to feed their family. But within the past two to three years, it started to become profitable. Now, directors of companies are closing their offices and going to the farm.

“We were not getting value for the kind of effort we put into the work,” Mohammed said. However, last year, the retired judge, who produces around 1,000 bags of rice paddy a year on his farm, sold a bag for 10,000 naira. “Most of the young men in the community are now into farming of rice,” he said.
The economic incentive has urged farmers, not just in Argungu, but all over Kebbi, to double their yields. In 2017, the state is set to produce about two million metric tonnes of rice paddy. “Very soon we shall be exporting rice,” the retired judge said.

This explains the enthusiasm that has enveloped farmers in Argungu on the emergence of the Wacot Rice Mill. “Before the mill, we used to get the rice to the market and then it will be taken far-away,” Mohammed said. “So when we learnt about the rice mill, you cannot explain the happiness of the people. Now we have no problems of getting buyers and it will encourage us to feed the mill. We have told the farmers, now grow more rice. We are very delighted that a mill has come here.”

Another stakeholder who is delighted at the presence of the mill is the Emir of Argungu, Alhaji Samaila Mohammadu Mera. “The most important thing to a farmer is an available market for his product,” he told THISDAY. “With Wacot around, we have that. We are guaranteed good prices for what we produce. The future is big and bright and we have a responsibility to ensure that the company is sustained.”

The community is also witnessing an economic transformation; more jobs are flowing in (the mill alone will provide direct and indirect employment for 3,500 people), new businesses are being built around the mill and there’s a bubbly sense of optimism in the air. Wacot has also completed several humanitarian projects in the community. They’ve renovated a school and a hospital and have organised health camps with free consultation and medicines to over 1,000 farmers. “We’ve always had the aspiration to implement positive change,” Gupta said.

Now, attaining self-sustainability in rice production is only a matter of time as different states in the country have prioritised increasing paddy yield. The partial ban on the importation of the product and dollar scarcity has raised the prices of foreign rice, turning the head of consumers towards their local substitutes. But Wacot is bent on not just being a substitute.

“We want to change the perception that Nigerian rice is inferior to Thai rice; it’s not,” Gupta said. “It might be slightly shorter, but in terms of polish, safety parametres and ability to give nutrition to the body, it is top-of-the-line. When people buy our bag of rice, they will also be buying in assurance that what they want to consume is best in terms of food standard, health standard and safety standard.”
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