The big players in rice production in Nigeria cannot hit 1million tons of paddies annually – CEO, Earnwise Development Limited

Mr. Jude Elile, is a Pure and Industrial Chemistry graduate of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. The young and intelligent agribusiness entrepreneur has 10 years experience and expertise in QuickBooks Enterprise (ERP) Management and Accounting Software. In 2010, he founded Earnwise Development Company Ltd, and in 2016, the company began the production of Primax Rice, a high quality, premium parboiled and unpolished rice in Nigeria.

In this interview with MSMEsToday, Mr. Elile shared insights on how Nigeria can achieve self – sufficiency in rice production, why the price of rice will not drop and many more. Here are the excerpts:

Q. TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF

I am Jude Elile, a graduate of Industrial Chemistry from the University of Nigeria. I’ve been into business development and management software for ten years and my primary software is Quick Books Enterprise. It is a software that is used to manage businesses, production, sales and retail businesses. While we were doing management or business development, we got a hold of a Federal Government document that was released sometime on 23rd June 2015, that the country would no longer extend FOREX to about 40 items. Top on that list was rice, then vegetable oil and the like. Then we had done business planning and development for more than 100 businesses and we thought it’s was about time that we started something in line with what the Federal Government was delving into. So we did some projects on Shea butter, peanut oil, palm kernel oil and rice. Based on what we educate others about, we discovered that the products with which we will have the highest leverage and at the same time be able to impact more people would be rice. That’s why we got into rice business in 2016; it wasn’t easy because the big players in the industry like Olam, Coscharis and Dangote were stepping in and these players had billions of Naira in their hands. We decided to start at the lowest level, the lowest capacity; our rice mill processes 1.2 tons of rice per hour, about 22 bags of rice per hour and maybe 180-200 bags per day; this is the smallest capacity.

In a nutshell, I am an agribusiness entrepreneur who loves adding value to the system. I primarily have this knack to see poverty being driven as far away from us as possible.

Based on what we educate others about, we discovered that the products with which we will have the highest leverage and at the same time be able to impact more people would be rice

Q. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO START EARNWISE DEVELOPMENT CO LTD?

In the course of business development, I have had the privilege of coaching people in entrepreneurship in Kenya, Mozambique, Southern Sudan and several other places in Nigeria and I stumbled on the fact there is one missing link in Africa’s value chain or value addition processes, and that missing link is that we are more of a consuming and end-user continent, we don’t process what we use. This is the major reason why our economy seems to be nose-diving. Imagine petroleum (crude oil) for example, do you know that about 40 components come out of crude but we only take premium motor spirts, dual purpose kerosene, and diesel. The ones we don’t have access to are the black oil. The rest such as the poly-products we export them to be refined and import them. Even the clothes we wear are from poly-products. I was in the oil and gas industry for about four years, and when I looked back, I asked myself “how can I and my team make an impact in this country without having to cut corners or sell our father’s inheritance just to be able to start off?” Agriculture is the way; in a nutshell, I looked one day where I was coaching and I said everything in this hall can be divided into three major categories: petroleum which is crude, solid minerals and agriculture. If I can take a fraction of these three, which is agriculture, and add value to it, maybe we can move this economy a bit closer to where it used to be in the early 70s and 80s. Why did I choose that period in time? I have a friend’s passport in 1982 and she submitted N800 for Basic Travelling Allowance (BTA) and she was given $1,116. I traveled to the UK in 1982 and cab drivers were asking me for Nigerian Naira so that they could give me Pounds. So I asked myself what we can do to redeem the image of this country. The little I can do is choose a sector that I and my team could continue to add value, and that is what got us into agric.

Based on what we educate others about, we discovered that the products with which we will have the highest leverage and at the same time n

Let’s take rice specifically; it will amaze you to know that Nigerians consume 6.8 million tons of rice every year. Our total production all put together (in fact it rose significantly in the 1970s because Coscahris, Dangote and Walcott were beginning to get into it) is 3.8 million tons as at 2018/2019. The deficit of 3 million tons results in smuggling, so I asked myself where I can occupy. We put our resources together, sourced for funds and were able to get Primax up and running. As it stands, producing 200 bags a day, we are only able to meet 0.01% of the annual demand. But one thing we have chosen to give Nigerians rice without preservatives, rice that has its nutrients intact, rice that can still be eaten the next day. Nigeria has 57 varieties of rice but we only researched and package three of them. It is the pain of how bad things have gone, how much we do not add value to our gains that, drives my team and I and rice is the product that we are starting with.

Q. HAVE WE REACHED SELF-SUFFICIENCY IN RICE PRODUCTION, AND IF NOT, WHAT ARE THE CONSTRAINTS?

The answer is no. Like I said the conservative research conducted by KPMG is 6.8 million tons in consumption per annum and 3.8 million tons in production. A few more big players stepped in, like Coscharis, but with all that Coscharis does – if it is 150 hectares of farm land that they have apart from machinery where he produces about three trailers a day – it is still not enough to meet customers’ demand. I always tell people when I facilitate at workshops, that if I have the resources, I will replicate what we are doing in 100 more places across Nigeria and we will still not meet 5.5 metric tons.

Q. IS IT TRUE THAT THE BIG PLAYERS DON’T HAVE THEIR OWN FARMS, BUT WHAT THEY DO IS BUY RICE PADDIES AND STORE THEM UNTIL SUPPLY RUNS OUT BEFORE THEY BRING OUT WHAT IS IN STORAGE?

To a degree it is correct, but to another degree it is not absolutely right. I will not make assumptions now but I will answer based on the facts that I have. 2km from our cottage mill is Coscahris International Standard Factory and before it was set up a year and a half ago, he secured a farm land in Anambra State that holds a capacity of about 150,000 metric tons. He has, but compared to 6.8 million tons consumed, it isn’t sufficient. In the course of research, going into the mountains of Taraba region on rice, honey and other agro items we could add value to, the community elders told us that government was securing land from them to begin cultivating rice. We were surprised to later hear that it was for Dangote, who is said to have taken 3 or 4 villages, which is the last I heard; if he has begun full production, I am not aware, he did however mention in one of his press releases that he has started. Notwithstanding, if you add what Dangote is doing in the Iwari region and what Coscharis is doing in the Awka North region and what others are doing elsewhere, I doubt that these big players would be able to hit 1 million tons of paddies (1 million tons of paddy will give you about 680-690 kilograms of rice).

In one sense, a few of these big players cultivate a fraction of what their capacity is. However, there is a young man in Nasarrawa State who happens to be the single largest rice producer as far as Nigeria is concerned; he doesn’t process but works with several communities. But what the big players are doing is that they have farms large enough, however what they have can barely meet 10% of what they require to process. There is huge room for mechanized cultivation of especially single origin rice not a mixed variety.

Q. WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE IN ORDER TO MEET SELF-SUFFICIENCY IN RICE PRODUCTION AND GOVERNMENT ASPIRATION OF EXPORTS? SECONDLY, WHY IS THE COST OF RICE STILL HIGH? IS THERE GOING TO BE AN END TO IT AND WHEN?

Based on what several other countries have been able to do – like China, Vietnam and Malaysia – you don’t use big players to meet self-sufficiency in rice production; you use several small holders who have been empowered and work together to do that. The big players are going to these small holders who have a variety of sizes of land scattered across board. What this country needs to do is increase support and provide an amiable environment for multiple small holders to work in clusters, known as AGORA Scheme.  We, for example, are trying to stimulate that, working in Benue, Anambra and Taraba. What we have realized is that by working with these people, there are always two things they say. One is that Rice is hard work and the second is that we need money.

By bringing these two things together, what does it mean? They are saying that if the difficulty in rice cultivation can be ameliorated or solved for them, they will cultivate more rice. On the other hand, they are also saying that if they have funds to secure more farmland, get more seedlings, herbicides, fertilizer and labor, if we are empowered that we can use to increase our cultivation, they will produce more. Let me paint a picture. A farm plot in the Eastern region is actually an acre, that is, 6 plots of land. In the Benue Norther region, it’s a hectare, 10,000 square meters. It takes twelve half plots of land to give 1 acre; 24 gives 2 acres; 24 plus a half gives 30 plots or 1 hectare. Imagine farming on 1 hectare of land, if your harvest goes well without applying a lot of agronomic processes, you’ll get about 2.5 tons of paddy. In order to work on 1 hectare, an average small holder farmer requires about twenty local workers with them. If you have a mechanized system for example, let’s say you come to an area of about 1000 hectares and there are two thousand farmers with three thousand workers, and they have two tractors (or one standard tractor with a lot of implements on them) it doesn’t mean the workers won’t get paid. I remember that the community where we set up our factory is in a cluster where rice is delivered every four days. The king extended a message to them when they learnt that we were on ground that if he can get a tractor for the community, we will give him 50 plots of land to take charge of, but will still pay for the tractor services. If that difficulty in rice cultivation is made low by mechanization, provision of input and resources are also made available for them, we will have more smallholder farmers farming at the same time. As a result, we can up our game in terms of output per annum.

If the difficulty in rice cultivation can be ameliorated or solved for them, they will cultivate more rice.

The same way we are working at creating an amiable environment for small holder farmers to grow and cultivate more rice, we also need to look at the engine that moves the small holder farm work, which is processing. It is processing that stimulates more cultivation. I have noticed that several huge processing factories you see run by government or communities get broken down within a short time or produces at low capacity because of power problems. We don’t need mega processing plants; what we need are automated cottage processing outlets. If Ajah, Sangotedo, Epe, and Ibeju-Lekki are rice cultivating areas for example, what the cottage principle does is that you plant a cottage processing mill in four places in each of these locations, the money it will take to put these mills together is about N40 million. Let’s say you have N160 million, it is not up to what it will cost to set up one mega processing mill, like Coscharis who said his cost N6.2 billion. With that money, we could spread a lot of cottage processing mills across the country, but they have to be automated. They then stimulate more farmers farming on their behalf; that will go a long way in helping us achieve self-sufficiency in terms of feeding ourselves, first in rice before we get to the business of exporting.

We don’t need mega processing plants; what we need are automated cottage processing outlets.

Q. WHY IS THE COST OF RICE STILL HIGH EVEN THOUGH WE HAVE BANNED IMPORTATION? WHEN WILL IT DROP?

If I am to answer like a professor in a classroom, I will say it will be when we are able to produce more than what we eat, that is, when the supply is more than the demand. However, a few other indices come into play. 2020 is just a new normal because of the pandemic. The hike in the price of rice and that of several other commodities, I wouldn’t know whether to accredit it to the pandemic; because what the pandemic did – as people were not at work – governments and NGOs purchased a lot of food items, rice being peak in Nigeria. The farmers we have, because of the demand that was growing then, were forced to sell their stored grain meant to be planted for high prices because of the quarantine. Imagine someone who has been controlling N500 000 and because he has some grains which ordinarily will not cost more than N80,000, people start asking for the grains at N200,000. A ton of a batch of rice secured then from our partner farmers at N120 000, that is 1000kg of a paddy – not the rice itself. As at two months back, a ton of it was N225 000. The question is what caused that hike in the price? The pandemic for one, but aside that, before the pandemic, a bag of good quality local rice cost between N24 000 and N24 500 (we were selling at N23 500) – that’s retail price – while we were producing for our distributors at N18 200, N17 900 for those who could do a trailer load and above. As at that time, people were expecting a bag of rice to not be more than N14 000 or N15 000.

The fact, however, remains that the supply of a paddy of rice is still way lower than the demand for it as it stands. A restaurant owner came in and expected that Nigerian rice should be cheaper, and I agreed; and the person asked what the dollar has to do with the price. I quickly calculated in my head a few indices – for example, Peter, a staff is angry with me that the N7 000 paid per batch is not enough, that he requires N10 000. As at December, the staff takes N5 000 for parboiling; before you process the rice paddy, it needs to undergo a few processes – cleaning, steam boiling, sun drying or a mechanized system for drying; the dry one is stored and milled for a dealer or distributor on request. We do more of rice production than sales, so we produce for distributors.

 Peter is an expert in terms of parboiling; he takes per batch – the end product of a batch gives you what is called 18 bushels, a bushel being about 22.5-23 kg; this is the standard measurement used in Nigeria and several other countries. Peter takes N5 000 to steam boil, then dry a batch of rice as at December 2019 – March 2020. In May, Peter begins to say that he can’t work with N5 000, the game has stepped up and he now requires N10 000. Where did he pick up the increase? From an increase in the cost of things – imagine taking money to the market and not being able to get everything you require. The labor input for rice processing has been directly affected by the hike in other areas, so they automatically transfer that hike back to where they earn their pay which is the labor input they deliver in rice cultivation; that is one reason. The second one comes in terms of transportation; where rice is cultivated, for instance one of the jumbo bags we take from the farm weighs about 180kg. Right in the farm, because we want single source rice, we go to the farm when ours has been exhausted to interact directly with the small holders and let them know when we will come to pick up the paddies from them. Theirs is to get the paddies ready, you pay someone to blow off as much of the chaff as possible, and you pay someone else to bag it. Then you will pay N100 for each bag to be brought to the road where a tractor, car or bus will take them. If you say it is difficult then try carrying it because you are going through muddy areas; except you bring a big tractor, a car or a truck will sink. That is just bringing the bags out to the road; this is where accessibility comes into play. From the road to your factory, a transporter will also charge to take the paddies, and when you ask them why they are charging so much, they talk about how expensive everything is. All of these costs are intertwined, and after you are done, in order to move the bags to your packaging outlet or to your customers, the transporter will charge N4 000 for just one bag or N2 500 if there are many.

That’s the reason, but I think that if our production of paddies outweighs our consumption locally, it will help reduce the cost that is being added to it indiscriminately. Also, when we have a lot of cottage processing mills processing the rice, competition will rise. Now I claim my rice is premium unpolished, no sand or stones and is very tasty, if you have another person doing exactly the same thing and you realize there is no difference, you sit back and think of ways to reduce cost. Healthy competition is required, but before then, we need a supportive environment to make this work.

I think that if our production of paddies outweighs our consumption locally, it will help reduce the cost that is being added to it indiscriminately. Also, when we have a lot of cottage processing mills processing the rice, competition will rise.

Q. HOW DO WE SOLVE THE CHALLENGE OF HAVING ENOUGH SEEDLINGS FROM WHERE WE ARE INTO THE 2021 PLANTING SEASON? WHAT DO THE GOVERNMENT AND PRIVATE SECTOR NEED TO DO?

Just like a lot of exotic plants that their seeds are given a lot of attention, let’s not think because rice is small and produced by every other person, the seed can be neglected. The seed actually is a big problem because if you don’t get the right seedlings it could be a problem. To prove this, we planted rice here on one ridge which are supposed to be the same, at the stage when the rice starts flowering in order to begin to form seedlings, we realized that some are forming and others have not started flowering. That tells us that the seeds are not the same. As if that is not enough, stepping down a little bit towards the stem of the rice, you see that some are red while others are green; this also tells you that the seeds are not the same.

This area of seedlings is one area I think we’ve neglected a whole lot. We left them in the hands of the locals and that’s wrong. There was a company in Kaduna, I think, who were able to get ‘FARO 44’ from which made it possible to extend it to our farmers. If we are to go by our signature rice, which is the Max rice, we begin to have challenges in each seedling because we don’t have a lot of people who specialize in seed formulation or cultivation. Some businesses are supposed to specialize in cultivating seed for sales purposes. It is a bit more expensive if you buy 180kg of paddy for processing at say N40 000; the seed for planting will be much more, maybe even twice that, but that is ok because 180kg of rice seedlings is more than enough to plant in 1 hectare if you have the right seed. Our advice is that we need to drum the bell for more entrepreneurs to step into the area of seedling cultivation.

Q. GOING INTO SEED MULTIPLICATION WILL STILL BOIL DOWN TO ONE OF THE NITTY GRITTIES OF THE PRODUCTION PROCESS, WHICH IS ACQUISITION OF FARM LAND. HOW DOES THIS BECOME POSSIBLE?

Seed multiplication actually requires less land compared to the actual cultivation of rice for example. As at the time when paddies were sold for N16 000 for an average local bag of 105kg, we were buying the seeds of the same bag for N36 000. So if you are into seed multiplication, you already know that your price per kilogram is different from paddy for consumption, in the sense that I can’t buy from a seed multiplication company and call it seedlings because it has a lot of particles. His job is to separate the seeds that are not healthy enough for cultivation from the ones that are. In terms of land, someone who is into seed multiplication doesn’t need more than a maximum 5 hectares, and those 5 hectares are there because they need to do subsistent farming in order to get the soil to give its best even if you are adding input to the soil. The bottom line is that someone who is into seed multiplication requires less land space. If you have more seed, you would have sorted out the problem that those of us in full cultivation and the rest of the value chain are facing currently. Seedling from a single source makes for easy processing; it makes it easy for us to time whatever we are doing to producing. Getting rice paddies that you process and you see the same species of rice all through is very imperative when it comes to getting good quality rice that has good shelf life. In order to make that work, the seed multiplication companies need to understand that even a graduate who understand the principles of processes should come into the system and understand that you don’t need an extended farmland to go into seed multiplication.

Seedling from a single source makes for easy processing; it makes it easy for us to time whatever we are doing to producing. Getting rice paddies that you process and you see the same species of rice all through is very imperative when it comes to getting good quality rice that has good shelf life.

Q. IF I WANT TO GO INTO SEED MULTIPLICATION, WHAT KIND OF LAND DO I NEED? DOES IT REQUIRE THE SAME KIND OF LAND PREPARATION? CAN I TAKE UP ANY LAND AROUND ME TO GO INTO SEED MULTIPLICATION?

No, it doesn’t work that way. It depends on the type of rice you want. Fadama rice, for example, can take any up land once you use irrigation to support it. But signature rice require rich loamy soil that is also rain fed or has access to water. They don’t require the same soil but you can create the soil for seed multiplication; the soil that makes rice grow well can be created in an environment where you are multiplying the seed because you don’t require a lot of land per time.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. People who see our rice assume that it is supposed to grow in lowland, mushy, waterlogged areas, but I tell you that it is because there are trenches that we drop water into on a regular basis and we monitor it. What seed multipliers are meant to know is that the land space that they require is about 10% or less than what they would require if they were doing rice cultivation. Also, because the land size is small they can improve the land to suit what they need. However, I won’t advice anyone who is going to do that not to test the soil first before going into it because you are going to be investing a lot. If possible, get an environmental scientist to test the soil; this serves as pre-production expenses and it is an asset in a way for you. If you can’t do that, then you can use the old method which is to plant the rice at intervals and see how they fare.

Beyond that, if you are going into seed multiplication, knowledge of the rice itself is very vital. Let me explain. If I want to multiply one of our types of rice and I have a place in Lagos, I must first turn the land into a muddy land – I will bring in a tractor, create trenches and flood the place with water and make sure that the water stays in the land at a particular period and let out when needed. I have seen foreigners, they create flood in the rice while the rice is there. At the time when the rice doesn’t require the flood – because the essence of the flood to kill weeds that obstruct the input that has been added to the soil, so if you leave the water above the level of the rice, the weeds cannot grow. The first two months, it become nutrients for the rice. At the time when the rice gets to the stage where the seed needs sun to start drying, you then drain the land. Whoever is getting into this also needs to understand that besides what you learnt in principle, you also need practical knowledge of what I’ve just mentioned.

They don’t require the same soil but you can create the soil for seed multiplication; the soil that makes rice grow well can be created in an environment where you are multiplying the seed because you don’t require a lot of land per time.

Q. YOU MENTIONED TARABA, ANAMBRA AND BENUE STATES AS YOUR OPERATION BASES. WHAT ARE THE FACTORS YOU CONSIDERED IN CHOOSING THOSE STATES OR CAN WE GROW RICE IN ALL THE STATES IN NIGERIA?

Frankly speaking, you can grow rice in all the states in Nigeria but the capacity of rice you can grow varies from state to state based on arable lands that rice requires. What are the factors I considered? I am a business development expert and there are some key factors that helps you succeed in business and one of them is called leverage advantage of sources of raw materials. I had to consider places where I had leverage and the places I have leverage are the states I mentioned. The second factor is these areas have ample land that are arable; Lagos would have been good in some areas but an average acre of land runs into millions, whereas in some of those places I can rent 1 hectare for N30 000. Tell me one place in Lagos or Ogun State where you will get 1 hectare to rent for a year and pay N50 000? For that 1-hectare, you get about 2.5 or 3 tons of rice based on our level of cultivation. In Vietnam, China and Malaysia, 1 hectare should give you about 4 – 5 tons if you use mechanized systems both to plant and other processes; we are getting there but we are not there yet. So leverage and availability of land are the factors I considered in choosing those states.

Q. DO YOU HAVE A READY-MADE MARKET FOR YOUR PRODUCTS?

The truth is that we are not looking for market because we are carving a niche and focusing on a brand. We are also looking for those who have needs in area we are trying to reach. When I say we are not looking for market, it doesn’t mean we don’t need new market outlets; we do need because if you take the signature rice, for example, we realized that the farmers in the village call it “rich man rice”, rice that equates with your Caprice – I still stand to be corrected. We have been told that there is another specie that has some of the same features but my research did not extend to Yola to find that out. This rice in particular is a bit more expensive so the type of market required for it are the high end medium income earners or those who just want to eat healthy. We are still looking out for such markets, and give them the understanding that they don’t have to go for that 100% premium polished rice that they pay so much for and don’t get value for money in terms of nutrients; that this is the rice that can take care of that. In that sense we are looking for a market, but in the general sense, there is already a market for the other types of rice. The demand for rice is there but the niche you want to cover will make it that you may be looking for those kinds of markets also.

Q. EVERY YEAR, ACROSS THE COUNTRY, THERE IS ALWAYS NEWS OF FLOODING IN ONE PLACE OR THE OTHER, DESTROYING FARMLANDS AND HOMES. IS THERE A WAY TO TURN THAT TO OUR ADVANTAGE?

It is not out of place; when I visited the Coscharis Farm, there’s something he did with the resources he got, he took advantage of the flood. The rain is not the problem. If they don’t release the dam it becomes a huge disaster for them, and when they do release the dam it passes through river Benue and spreads through all the regions that Benue and Niger will get to; and those low land areas intersecting through either the East or the North side of Benue or Niger cultivate rice, from the Yola region, Anambra state, Kogi, Kebbi and so on.

But there’s something these Vietnamese and Malaysians do which I saw Coscharis doing, but it requires huge capital. They use the soil to create huge ridges or trenches so that you have soil in the middle. Once the flood come in that region, the water goes around it, but they create an inlet to allow the floods in if they need it and close the inlet when water is not needed. What they do in mechanized farms is that they apply the same principles; they raise up land at different areas and the farms are in-between them. The floods will stay maximum three weeks, within that period the water needed can still be retained, and when the water isn’t needed any longer, the inlet is opened to let the water out.

‘People were wondering what Coscharis was doing, bringing in trailer loads of red mud to create trenches in kilometers, with the farm in-between and put pipes that serve as inlets and outlets for the water when you need them and when you don’t. That’s one good way to make use of the flood’.

In another sense, sometimes it also pays not to spend all this money to do this, but to rather do something different. Leave the low land areas if you don’t have the resources and capacity to take care of them, move to the up land areas and use irrigation for farming; that’s where Fadama rice come to play. So if you are in the up land regions even if the flood comes, it won’t get to you but the rice will need to be fed with water. ‘In fact, the Vietnamese still do the same thing; even on mountains they flood it intentionally. They bring in water from streams and create the same bulwark, the trenches are filled with water for some weeks, the rice takes enough water and when they no longer need the water they let it out.  So mechanization, a good irrigation system and a good understanding of the rice you are cultivating comes to play. That’s one way to make use of the flood and another way to avoid the flood but create your water system through irrigation’.

Mechanization, a good irrigation system and a good understanding of the rice you are cultivating comes to play. That’s one way to make use of the flood and another way to avoid the flood but create your water system through irrigation.

Q. WOULD YOU SAY THAT COTTAGE MILLING FACILITIES IS AN INVESTMENT PEOPLE CAN TAP INTO?

When you asked how we can achieve self-sufficiency, I mentioned it as the first factor. The thing is that it is not only the rice it will create sufficiency for. ‘An average cottage mill that does 150 bags of rice every day stimulates jobs at a minimum of 25% direct employment, not to talk of the indirect staff that cultivate the rice, transport it, store it’. So yes, cottage mills are the answer, the only thing is that the cottage mills have to be automated. In the community where I am, I told them that I’m doing a PhD project in rice; in fact as far as I am concerned it is a PhD project; spending a few hundred thousand to do research on the 57 varities of rice and identify the ones that meet the market needs. For instance, if you try picking out the broken grains of rice in certain types, you may need to strain your eyes. Whereas the local machines, if they know that same rice they could pick out of every 100, about 30 broken grains, they use what is called steel hauler – like what the local people use to grind pepper. That causes a lot of challenges but it is cheap to operate, in fact it runs on water and diesel and the engine can last for decades.

The truth is that processing is the way to stimulate a high volume of cultivation and at the same time to generate the number of employment that we need besides meeting self-sufficiency.

When I went to Onitsha to do the research, I went to the blackstone company and they asked me, “young man you said that you are doing your PhD. How do you want our company to survive if when your grandfather bought his and has not bought another one up until now and you are still using it?” The man threw it to me like a proverb and I used my tongue to count my teeth and laughed.

In order to meet self-sufficiency like I said, one primary factor is multiplication of automated cottage mills; because I have a semi-automated mill, a farmer came here last week so excited; he said “now oga can you agree with us, we want to go back and start cultivating rice?” I told him that if you can plant and I can get 100 – 200 bags of 100kg each, I will sign the document that I will buy them. So once there is a mill, the next step is to find those who will cultivate single origin rice for us. The mill doesn’t only help us achieve self-sufficiency, it also motivates farmers who have the problem of when they finish farming, who to sell to. Rice being expensive doesn’t mean that some farmers that are not suffering; some of them farm and they don’t know who to sell to. ‘Middle men come in and collect them for peanuts, it’s just the pandemic that pulled up everyone’s ears that the government is sharing rice, which then created a lot of hype’.

The truth is that processing is the way to stimulate a high volume of cultivation and at the same time to generate the number of employment that we need besides meeting self-sufficiency.

Q. HOW MUCH WILL I NEED TO START RICE CULTIVATION?

N500 000 can help you start rice cultivation if you go to the right place, even lower depending on the capacity you want. With N500 000, don’t do a one year rent because the first year is for tilling. If you do one year and leave the land, it is the next person that benefits. In your first year, you may be clearing the top soil, doing a lot of weed killing and all of that. So with that amount as a small holder farmer, you can get up to 6 hectares of land rented for two years and begin the first level of work on the land. But the second thing that is going to take a lot of money is the initial labor in land preparation – land preparation for a starter is usually very expensive and that’s where the tractors are required.

Q. HOW DO WE KEEP THE BIRDS THAT SUCK UP THE RICE AT THE FLOWERING STAGE AND WHAT KIND OF CHALLENGES DO THEY PRESENT?

The birds are a major challenge when it comes to rice cultivation. Traditionally, the farmers use their children, some guns and sounds and scarecrows. Those who are a bit wealthy shoot guns and it scares them away for a while. We realized that you don’t remove the scarecrow no matter how mechanized you get; the only thing is to mechanize the scarecrow so that it moves. But there’s something else that worked when we did our research. VHF Cassettes – old tapes – if you put them in the sun it reflects the sun-rays. What we discovered is that one whole tape can give up to 3km, so what we do is to plant sticks and tie the tapes over the rice. Once the wind blows, the tape makes a sound and the sun rays reflected scare the birds, so they tend to leave the rice for a while.

Some people have brought in new technology, flying drones across the farms, but it will cost over half a million to get a drone and I need someone to man that drone. That’s also good because I can use the drone to do multiple jobs per time. The issue is that understanding also matters. There are two times you need to make sure that those birds are kept away from your rice: the formation stage of the rice seed; the rice at this stage is fluid mostly, so the birds come at this stage to pick the sweet fluid. The second is when the rice is ready; birds like the weaver and quails come and pick the full grown rice. Usually, these periods fall within three weeks in between each other. That’s why the local people use scarecrows and their children, but now, using that tape technology and the drone systems are good ways to scare the birds. If you are able to keep them away for 2 – 3 hours that’s fine. ‘But that birds won’t come to the farm, that’s not possible. If they are not there, then you don’t have rice, and that’s a loss farmers have to bear’.

If you do mechanized farming, how much will they eat? That’s another thing you need to ask, except an epidemic of birds like those days when they come in millions. These are the two methods that modern farmers employ to manage it. I’m still hoping that the younger and smarter ones will device other means but everything will have to be mechanized.

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