Nigeria: Are the pictures of rice pyramids an election tactic?

Posted on Wednesday, 2 February 2022 09:30

Grains of rice and beans are seen on display for sale at a traditional market in Bariga district, in Lagos, Nigeria January 15, 2021. Picture taken January 15, 2021. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

A government media promotion of images of rice "pyramids" has elicited howls of protest across Nigeria's social media, with many accusing President Muhammadu Buhari's government of grandstanding ahead of national elections. But the images have also left many outside Nigeria wondering why and how are the pyramids got there in the first place. In that sense, the promotion is very much a win for narrative change in and on, Nigeria.

By Dorcas Bello – bird Newsroom. 

Images of rice “pyramids” posted by news outlets across Nigeria in January are a reminder that Nigeria once had a proud history of agricultural production.

The country was Africa’s foremost agricultural producer up until the 1970s when government export taxes, the impact of the oil economy and a series of crop disease outbreaks decimated agricultural production. Today, the country has a massive food import dependency.

While Nigeria now spends over $5bn a year on food imports (some sources put the figure far higher), recent oil price shocks and worries over food security during the Covid-19 pandemic have cast a spotlight on the need to improve domestic production. One of President Muhammadu Buhari’s original campaign promises was to improve domestic food production and cut down on imports. He is being accused of using this year’s rice harvest as a publicity stunt to trumpet government success ahead of the 2022 elections.

The storm on social media after the pyramids were shown on national TV stations saw critics accusing the government of grandstanding despite huge increases in domestic food prices, while supporters said the government was providing support for Nigerian agriculture and helping diversify the economy.

Nigerian food “pyramids” are nothing new. By the 1970s and ’80s, Nigeria had become the world’s foremost groundnut producer (it is still the third-largest) and in the ’60s and ’70s, groundnuts made up 70% of Nigeria’s total exports.

After each harvest, huge “pyramids” of neatly stacked groundnut sacks were a source of pride for Nigerians. The stacks dwarfed even buildings in the northern city of Kano.

The pyramids were there to help with logistics after the harvest and to prevent insect infestation. While this year’s rice “pyramids” – constituting a million bags of rice, according to the event organisers – may have little practical value, they do, nevertheless, highlight Nigeria’s actual agricultural prowess.

Not only is this year’s rice harvest a significant improvement over harvests of a decade ago, but Nigeria’s overall food production is nothing to sneer at. While the narrative of Nigerian dependence on food imports has been overwhelming, its substantial agricultural production across a wide range of crops is largely ignored. Nigeria is still one of Africa’s top food producers, if not THE top food producer in Africa, according to online data provider, Knoema.

Like-for-like figures for 2018 show the country leading Africa when it comes to gross agricultural output. According to Knoema, in 2018, the gross value of agricultural production for Nigeria was $25.5bn. By comparison, the gross figure for South Africa in 2018 was $21.6bn, for Egypt it was just shy of $20bn and for Kenya it was $16.8bn.

In 2015 the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) launched the “anchor borrowers program” aimed at providing technical support and loans to farmers growing rice, maize and other crops, in an attempt to boost production and increase yields.

The agreement, according to Muazu Shehu, one of Nigeria’s top rice growers, provides financing and a mechanism for the government to buy back the harvested rice (or, “paddy”) which is then distributed to rice mills across the country.

Shehu explained that the rice pyramid at the Abuja International Trade Fair Complex was motivation for Nigeria to not only attain self-sufficiency but also feed the rest of Africa.

Governor of the CBN, Goodwin Emeifele, said Nigeria had moved from producing 4.5 million tonnes of rice to being able to produce some 7. 5 million tonnes annually (the 2021 harvest was some 5 million tons, despite two years of drought).

President of the Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria (RIFAN) said the pyramids themselves made up just 0.5% of the rice actually produced in the 2020/2021 farming season. The display was made up of 13 pyramids, each containing some 115,000 bags of 100kg each.

RIFAN has some 12.2 million members, active across rice farming, milling, storage, management, trading and marketing. 29 states of Nigeria’s 36 states produce rice, on some 3.90 million hectares.

The growth in rice production comes on the back of a massive increase in domestic demand. Increasingly a staple, rice originally entered Nigerian lexicon as a luxury. “There is rice at home, oh” stands as an invitation to dinner, across much of the country.

So while Nigeria still has a lot to do to ensure it reaches parity for food import and export (South Africa by contrast exports agricultural products worth some $10bn, while Egypt’s agricultural exports are worth well over $2bn), the country is hardly a laggard when it comes to actually growing food.

Improvements in production techniques and mechanisation could see a massive boost in output in coming years and while infrastructure requirements are substantial, given the political will, growing domestic demand and a renewed interest in farming from entrepreneurs, there is very little standing in the way of Nigeria being at the forefront of an agricultural revolution on the continent.

bird story agency

Data source for agricultural production: https://knoema.com

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