Border closure: Ofada rice farmers make profit amid challenges

Following the closure of Nigeria’s borders by the Federal Government, JESUSEGUN ALAGBE writes about the activities of rice farmers at Ofada, a sleepy community in Ogun State, famous for Ofada rice

Whistling as he arrived majestically from his farm to the front yard of a brownish 18th century-looking house, Mr Adio Afolabi smiled widely, dwelling briefly in the warm embrace of his wife who had prepared him a dish of hot amala (yam flour) and okra soup and patiently awaited his return from the farm.

He settled into a long wooden chair and stool, washed his right hand in a small blue bowl of water and gulped down the seemingly mountainous food awaiting him. He must have been famished, for he finished the food in no time. After devouring the food and emptying a jug of water fetched from a large pot in the corner of a dark passage, Afolabi handed over some money to his wife, instructing her to keep it in his room.

This is definitely a good time for the rice farmer, who resided in Asaya Baala, Ofada, a town known for Ofada rice cultivation in Ogun State.

On a sunny Tuesday morning when our correspondent visited him in the community, Afolabi sang multiple choruses. Evidently, the harvest was not only good this year, but he also had better sales, unlike last year.

He said, “This morning, three rice vendors called me to ask if they could get bags of Ofada rice from me, but I had sold all my stock. I had to refer them to other rice farmers.”

Afolabi said every year, he usually planted Ofada rice on four acres of farmland, harvesting several tonnes at the end of the planting season. However, he had never sold as much quantity of rice as he had in 2019 so far.

Disclosing the reason for the increased sales, he said it was due to the border closure by the Federal Government.

“Sales have been on the upward side since the borders were closed. The situation this time round is different from last year’s,” said Afolabi, who had been into rice farming for 19 years.

The politics of border closure

One of the most smuggled commodities into Nigeria is rice, which is a staple in many homes in the country.

According to data from the Customs, between August and October 30, 2019, the agency seized items worth over N2.3tn, including 32,814 bags of rice in 50kg packages.

Between January and November 2018, spokesperson for the Customs, Mr Joseph Attah, said the service seized 238,094 50kg bags of smuggled rice across the country. The goods were reportedly worth over N4bn.

Between 2015 and 2017, the Customs also said it seized 497,279 bags of rice, with a duty paid value of N3.8bn. Despite these efforts at curbing rice smuggling, experts said the figures only represented a fraction of smuggled rice into the country within the periods under review.

According to statistics, the high rate of rice smuggling into the country is directly related to the rate of consumption of the commodity, with World Bank data stating that Nigerians consume about seven million tonnes of rice every year.

Hence, in August 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari ordered the closure of Nigeria’s border with the Benin Republic to check the smuggling of goods, especially rice.

The exercise to check smuggling, code-named, ‘Ex-Swift Response,’ is being jointly conducted by the Nigeria Customs Service, Nigeria Immigration Service, the Nigeria Police Force and the military. The joint action is coordinated by the Office of the National Security Adviser.

The border was initially planned to reopen in October 2019, but the President extended it to January 31, 2020 and also extended the action to other neighbouring countries such as Niger.

Apart from rice smuggling, the closure is also aimed at preventing weapons and drugs from entering the country, the Minister of Finance, Zainab Ahmed, said recently at the International Monetary Fund Annual Meetings in Washington DC, the United States.

In a statement, the President’s spokesperson, Mr Femi Adesina, said the government was particularly worried about rice smuggling as it threatened agricultural policies on food sufficiency.

“Now that our people in the rural areas are going back to their farms and the country has saved huge sums of money which would otherwise have been expended on importing rice using our scarce foreign reserves, we cannot allow smuggling of the product at such alarming proportions to continue,” he said.

With the closure of the borders, the government said it had been able to curb rice smuggling at the borders to some extent while simultaneously boosting the sale of local rice.

Renewed energy for Ofada rice farmers

The Chairman of the Rice Farmers Association at Asaya Baala, Ofada, Mr Michael Thomson sat with the association’s General Secretary, Mr Musibau Kamilu, on a long wooden bench, exchanging banters as they played ayo olopon, a traditional board game popular in the South-West.

Thomson, who said he started rice farming in 1985, stated that after the border closure, rice farmers in the area had been witnessing increased sales and laughing all the way to the bank.

A one-time official of the All Farmers Association of Nigeria from 1999 to 2012, Thomson said he was however sad because he could not cultivate enough rice this year to sell due to ill health.

He said, “Rice farmers are making money right now. It’s unfortunate I couldn’t plant much rice this year because of sickness – unlike last year when I planted rice on 15 hectares of land.

“My friends who planted this year are smiling, they are living well, I can tell you that. They are prosperous this year. They are making good money. I harvested 150 tonnes of rice last year but the price was low compared to this year.

“If I had a storage facility and kept the rice I harvested in 2018 till this year, I would be happy right now. The market price of Ofada rice has increased. For instance, a 5kg bag which cost around N4,000 last year is now up to N8,000. The border closure is a blessing to us.”

Another Ofada rice farmer who has been laughing all the way to the bank due to the closure of the borders is Adewale Taiwo, who donned a blue shirt and jeans when our correspondent met him for an interview.

“Sales have increased at better prices since the border closure. More people are calling to demand more bags of rice but I’m out of stock now and it’s not yet planting season.

“All we need is for the government or private sector to key into what we are doing to develop rice farming. We are available, we have the capacity and we are willing to plant rice better than we do now. But we have limited resources,” he said.

Another farmer, Kunle Sulaimon, said he had been making more sales because of the current decision on the country’s borders, hoping that the situation would remain so.

“It’s good times for us Ofada rice farmers and I’m glad we are making better sales than what we sold between January and August 2019. Apart from better sales, we’re also selling at better prices,” said Sulaimon, who had practised rice farming for 15 years.

On her part, Mrs Aina Bariki, said she had also been making better sales as an Ofada rice grower since August 2019 and hoped the situation would continue

“I have my own rice farm and my husband has his. We plant rice every year, but this period is one of the best we had ever witnessed. Some of us have sold all our stocks and anticipating to plant again when the planting season comes around February next year,” she said...Continue reading….

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