New planting and harvesting techniques have transformed the fortunes of rice farmers in Nigeria’s agricultural belt, turning family-run plots into thriving businesses.
Many have doubled or tripled their profit with higher yields and better-quality rice that gives smallholder farmers access to a wider market.
Three years ago, Mohammed Sani scraped enough to feed his family from a 1.5-hectare plot in Kebbi State. After levelling the land, acquiring superior seeds and changing planting techniques from a scattering style known as broadcasting to transplanting nursery-grown crops in neat rows, his output has increased by more than 50 per cent.
“I’ve realised rice farming is a business,” he says.
Rice is a staple food in Africa but supply falls far short of demand with yields in the sub-Saharan region among the lowest in the world. Pressure is mounting on local agriculture to feed rapidly growing populations and reduce reliance on expensive foreign rice.
A worker at Labana rice mills, Kebbi state, Nigeria
A worker at Labana rice mills CREDIT: THOMAS IMO
In Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, productivity has increased but 55 per cent of demand is still met by imports. Government efforts to reach self-sufficiency and improve food security are contingent on the success of small-scale farmers like Sani, who account for more than 80 per cent of cultivation.
But slow mechanisation, insufficient yields and poor quality rice – compounded by a weak market infrastructure – have left them unable to compete with consumer preferences for imported varieties.
In the past, you risked “losing a tooth” on the stones in Nigerian rice but there’s a growing awareness that now it matches up to imported brands says Abubakar Abba Adamu, CEO of Labana, one of the largest rice mills in north-west Nigeria.
Labana provides training and high quality seeds to thousands of farmers in Kebbi State then guarantees purchase of their harvest under the Competitive African Rice Initiative (CARI), a project that supports value chains in African rice farming.
Farmers plant rice in rows using rope to space the seedlings
Farmers plant rice in rows using rope to space the seedlings CREDIT: THOMAS IMO
“The mills feel their investment in rice is protected and farmers know they have a market,” explains Dr Kristina Spantig, project manager at CARI, which is implemented by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, the German development agency.
More than 90,000 Nigerian farmers have entered into contracts since 2013 and 81,165 have attended CARI’s Farmer Business School, learning to fill in cropping calendars, space seedlings with rope and irrigate fields during wet and dry seasons.
Agents visit the fields with agriculture apps like RiceAdvice and WeedManager, which calculate fertiliser quantities and identify types of weed. At harvest time, farmers beat grain from the husks on metal drums to minimise breakage.
“They are more and more ambitious,” says Adegoke Kazeem Adeniyi, CARI coordinator and value chain advisor at GIZ. The price of local rice is rising as the quality improves. “It’s no longer more attractive to buy imported rice,” he adds.
Rice farmer Umar Abu Bakr uses a portable pump to manage the water levels in his paddy fields in Kebbi state, Nigeria
Rice farmer Umar Abu Bakr uses a portable pump to manage the water levels in his paddy fields in Kebbi CREDIT: THOMAS IMO
In Suru Village, where residents are mainly farmers, Umar Abu Bakr has enrolled his daughters in school, finished the frontage of his house and fulfilled his religious obligations as a Muslim by going on the haj.
Before he only produced enough rice for domestic use; these days he has “peace of mind”, he says. Since switching to transplanting he has upped his yield from around 30 bags of paddy (unmilled rice) to 75 per hectare.
“I didn’t think it would work at first but then I saw the benefit.” Using a portable pump he lowers the water level in one of his fields. It makes the crops think they are dying and boosts growth, he explains.
Most of the farmers in this community have shifted their focus to rice. Outside the heaving village grain store, new motorbikes are clustered beneath a tree. Young people are buying more as the wealth of the whole community increases, Abu Bakr says.
Women dry parboiled rice in the sun
Women dry parboiled rice in the sun CREDIT: THOMAS IMO
Market day here is the busiest in Kebbi State as trucks squeeze by to load up on fresh paddy for the mills, which supply wholesalers in the city of Lagos. Others come with camels or bikes to transport single sacks for local buyers.
Just 20 minutes away in Jega Village, a group of women sieve and toss pots of paddy in the shade of a tree. This way of cleaning and preparing the grains is generations-old but a few simple adjustments have refined the process and reduced the time it takes from 24 hours to 14.
“The new technology is easier for us,” says overseer Hadiza Adamo, 50. The paddy is washed several times then steamed rather than boiled, resulting in cleaner, tastier rice that fetches a higher price at market, earning the women up to 2,000 (£4.30) Naira profit per bag compared to less than 700₦ before.
These days they don’t need to ferry the bags to market. “Now customers come to us,” Adamo says.