BEVERLY HILLS, April 05, (THEWILL) – Charles Ike from Abakaliki reports on the shot-in-the-arm given to Rice farming in Ebonyi State and how that is changing the economic fortunes of the people for good.
Rice is one of the demanding staple food consumed across the country. Nigeria as a Nation, has abundant land for rice cultivation. Between 1966-1999, during both military and civilian eras, the rich production was at a very low.
This however was not the same in South-East Nigeria that covers Imo, Anambra, Enugu, Abia and Ebonyi States. Abakaliki, capital of Ebonyi State, was a house hold name in terms of rice cultivation.
Ebonyi State is one of the most agrarian states in Nigeria. Made up predominantly of farmers, with savanna and semi tropical vegetation, humid, sandy and marshy soil. The state is blessed with moisture land for growing of varieties of cash and food crops, such as rice, yam, cassava, cocoyam.
Among the agricultural potential, the production of the famous Abakaliki rice has made the state so popular and a beehive of commercial activities.
No visitor comes to Abakaliki, the state capital, without testifying to the high quality of Abakaliki rice compared with other rice produced locally and internationally.
The Abakaliki rice is blessed with so many nutritional values, which is gotten from the salinity in the land of Abakaliki. It is even better and graded higher by those that know its nutritional values.
Apart from its nutritional value, the Abakaliki rice is naturally salted with good taste. The reputation of Abakaliki rice is derived from its superior taste.
Rice production no doubt has created jobs from which a lot of people feed their families. There are a lot of jobs people do in Abakaliki Rice Mill Industry including technical / professional and unprofessional/causal works, as well as others who sell their wares in the area.
Before and after Ebonyi State was created on October 1,1996, agriculture had remained the mainstay of the daily living and earnings of its people. The Abakliki Rice Mill as it is popularly called is adjudged to be the first indigenous company since the creation of the state.
During the creation of the state, at least Abakaliki Rice Mill Industry is equally the only existing industry in the state.
The company started as Abakaliki Rice Mill in 1967 on No. 60-65 Gunning Road Abakaliki.
The first engine procured for milling of Abakaliki rice was bought by one Mr. Anekwe Bestman. The relocation of the mill to its present site was done under one Hon. P. O. Nwike, who was then the Executive Chairman, Abakaliki Local Government Area in the then Anambra State.
However, on November 15, 1977, the land used for the construction of the rice mill was leased by the Abakaliki Local Council to Rice Mill Abakaliki, for 99 years upon payment of valuable consideration.
In September 1989, the Rice Mill Association Abakaliki was registered as a company with the incorporation name – Rice Mill Company Nig. Ltd with registration number RC. 136,800. But on January 1, 2000, customary right of occupancy with respect to the entire area of land measuring 1938.464 square metres occupied by the company was issued by the Government of Ebonyi State.
Inside the rice mill established in 1957 lies an expanse of land measuring 1938.464 square metres, various workers abound – machine operators, dust carriers, bag stickers, off loaders, barrow pushers, on-loaders, accountants, water suppliers, security men and a host of others.
Chief Sunday Oketa, said he started the rice mill business at the age 18. As a child, Oketa recalled how he joined the industry as a “dust carrier” and later trained for one year and six months as a machine operator.
“My father was alive then and he was one of the founders of the rice mill,” he said, adding that the entire family members were trained properly in farming.
“Early in 1971, we sold a bushel of rice at 10 Naira here and by then there was nothing like foreign rice. All Ebonyi people were farmers; we never knew any other handwork except farming. And when you come here, you see enough rice, food stuff such as cassava, yam and that’s why we name Ebonyi State, the Food Basket of the Nation,” Oketa told THEWILL.
He further said that,back in the 1980s; people from as far as Lagos, Benin, Port Harcourt usually come to buy Abakaliki rice.
“In those days, 15 trailer load of the commodity, 50 to 60 Mercedes Benz 911 lorries, aside other small vehicles such as pick-up vans leave the mill every day,” Oketa said, adding that the importation of foreign rice into Nigeria “is killing business here.”
Indeed, many are familiar with the popular Abakaliki rice which is believed to have a higher nutritional value than the imported polished and parboiled rice, and possibly the best in the world as certified by American experts. The rice is parboiled locally and processed by the small scale milling machines.
A notable rice farmer and Commissioner for Agriculture and National Resources,Chief Moses Ogodoali Nomeh, noted that more than 80 percent of Abakaliki rice is grown organically because the soil in vast swathe areas in the state is so fertile that the need for chemically-based fertiliser does not exist and it’s now government policy to prioritise agriculture in absolute terms, and ensuring that everything else yields way to this policy.
In a chat with THEWIILL, the state commissioner for Agricultural and Natural resources, Chief Nomeh, stressed that the government was determined to boost rice production across the state, adding that professionalism, commercialisation and mechanised system of Agriculture would adopted as part of its work plan.
He added that no land would left fallow in the state as Governor David Umahi has exemplified same by establishing a demonstration farm within the new Government House which has begun to yield dividend as crops are being harvested therein on regular besis.
Nomeh noted that the drive and target of the Umahi’s administration was to produce and supply 10 percent of the over six million metric tons of rice consumed in Nigeria annually.
“The administration borrowed N2 billion to invest in encouraging farmers, public and civil servants as well as the youths and women to undertake farming of a number of crops but especially rice very seriously.
“The injection of agro inputs and equipment such as seeds, herbicides, fertilizer, tractors, plus the necessary mechanical implements have enabled our citizens to put additional 20,000 hectares of land into rice cultivation this season,” he said.
The rice milling machines were situated in such a way that it formed a cluster and people from far and near bring their rice produce there for milling. Most times, the centre is also a market where people buy or sell rice.
Virtually in all communities and local council areas, milling machines are situated with commercial activities, especially for residents outside the capital city that may find it difficult to access the Abakaliki Rice Mill.
This large cluster of rice milling industry is owned and managed by private individuals and cooperative societies who have their milling machines, while government only collects royalties/levies from them. Usually, people come from far and near to the mill to buy or sell rice on a daily basis.
People from the north including neighbouring states such as Enugu, Imo, Abia and Anambra always come to buy rice in Abakaliki in very large quantities. The reason for the high patronage is not only that Abakaliki rice has been identified to have a unique taste when compared to foreign rice and other kinds of rice being patronised by people, it is cheap and affordable.
The price differs depending on the quality of the rice and specie. Currently, due to the ban on importation of foreign rice, a bushel of rice is sold for N10,000 and above, depending on the quality, as against N4,000 a year ago.
But the continued production of Abakaliki rice became endangered during the past administration of former Governor Martin Elechi, due to the face-off between the Abakaliki Rice Mill Company and Ebonyi State Government on the planned relocation of the rice mill to the three rice clusters in each of the senatorial zones of the state.
The chairman of Abakaliki Rice Mill, Mr. Joseph Ununu, noted that the policy of relocation of the rice mill and its attendant cases of threats and intimidation have brought untold hardship to them and the trauma precipitated the untimely death of 15 rice millers as a result of heart failure.
One of the patrons, Chief Chukwuka Okonwko, slumped and died shortly after hearing the news of the relocation. Mr. Elias Nwogu, 40, a father of six, said he has trained some of his children in both secondary and university from the proceeds of the rice business which he has been engaged in since the age of 15.
Okonkwo said he wanted to sell his milling engine, but nobody indicated interest to buy it and that was how the man died. “The engine was estimated at N1.6 million, but nobody could buy it even at N300,000 and that broke his heart; because the rice mill is moving out and everybody is afraid,” he said.
Mr. Augustine Obasi, father of four kids is one of the workers at the rice mill and hails from Ezza North local Government Area of the state. Born in the mid-1970s, he said he joined the rice business in 1991 but lamented the government decision to move them.
For Mrs. Eucharia Ogwutor, she said since joining the business in 1989 she has been buying from the farmers to do the final processing. “Ikwo Village is very far from here. No buyer would like to carry his money and go to such a distant place to buy. If Governor Elechi relocates the rice mill from here, people should just forget about the Abakaliki rice,” she said.
However, respite came with the emergence of Engr. David Umahi, as the governor of Ebonyi State. With the dwindling oil revenue, the present administration has re-emphasised the need to revert to agriculture which was the mainstay of the Nigeria economy before the discovery of oil.
To ensure agricultural revolution in Ebonyi State, Umahi has procured over 100 tractors for rice production. The Ebonyi State Government has also earmarked 40,500 hectares of land for rice cultivation this farming season spread across the 13 council areas in the state. Each of the LGAs has 2,500 hectares mapped for the rice production while IFAD has six thousand hectares and FADAMA, 2,000 hectares.
This feat if actualised would boost food security in the state. Already, all public servants have been directed to go into farming. Public primary and secondary schools and teachers have also been directed to have farms as basis for promotion.
Not lesser than 50,000 hectares of land have been identified and set aside by the state government across the 13 local government areas of the State for rice farming and production.
Similarly, the state government after procuring 13 graders among other equipment to aid rice production, decided through the State Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources to choose three Pilots schools, Girls’ Technical College Agba in Ishielu local government area, Government Technical College, Abakaliki and Ehugbo Technical College, Afikpo, for the implementation of its Schools’ Agricultural programme in the State.
The purpose of the programme is to reintroduce and establish the modern methods of agricultural practices and inspire students at the secondary school level on the need for them to be part of the agricultural revolution making wave in the state.
As this agricultural policies begin to gain prominence across the state, the government has also handed over 292 hectares of land to Ebonyi State University, EBSU, Abakaliki for use as demonstration farms to grow all kinds of crops including maize, rice, tomatoes, yams among others.
Many farmers in Ebonyi State, believe that rice revolution in the state actually begin in 2015 when the visionary Governor, Engr. David Umahi assumed office.
Before then, the farmers said, locally produced rice were not attractive to the residents as they preferred the imported one. Prior to the present administration under Govenor Umahi, a 25Kg bag rice was sold at about ₦2,500 depending on the quality and bargaining power.
A recent visit to the rice mill by THEWIILL, shows that a 25Kg sells #12,,000 and above while 50Kg go for ₦24,500 , which is equivalent to a foreign rice. One of the rice farmers who also doubles as machine operator at Abakaliki rice mill, Madam Catherine Nweke, said she was among the first beneficiaries of the revolution in 2015.
Another rice farmer, Mr. Joseph Nwafor, said the revolution in rice today, was necessitated by the ban on importation of foreign rice by both Ebonyi State and the Federal Government.