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DIVERSIFICATION: Missing the boat on rubber – 1

It does not matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches rats.” Malaysian proverb. (VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS,  p 26).

The Malaysian proverb was offered to Nigerians at the second Nigerian Economic Summit in Abuja by the Guest Lecturer, a Malaysian, who had worked on that nation’s Vision 2020 programme. Unlike the two fraudulent Nigerian versions – VISION 2010 and VISION 2020 – the speaker made it clear that Malaysia, which was already light years ahead of Nigeria, planned to achieve the objectives of VISION 2020 in a generation – defined as thirty years.

Unfortunately, the guest speaker was in the wrong country for his message. Nigerian policy fraudsters first hooked unto it to propose VISION 2010. Predictably, it flopped. Then another group of jokers drummed up VISION 20:2020. Even a fool knows that failure stares us in the face again.

But, President Jonathan does not yet know that he is being deceived – just as Obasanjo merrily signed on the dotted line for the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs; which we are sure to miss. At least, the good Malaysian professor of economics left us with material fit for the BOOK OF QUOTATIONS – for which I am grateful.

The NES II focused on diversification of the Nigerian economy in order to avert the negative consequences of being a mono-product economy. That was in 1995; and the fact that we are still a mono-product economy, almost 20 years after, is a testimony to our resistance to change – even when it is generally acknowledged.

One of the most profound papers delivered at the NES II was from a fellow from Michelin, the tyre manufacturing company which left Nigeria, in disgust, several years ago. The message from Michelin, if I can be permitted to call it that, was simple.

Nigeria should concentrate on growing more rubber because the revenue from that commodity will eventually exceed Nigeria’s income from crude oil; and, more importantly, it will be more sustainable. In 1995, the presenter estimated that if we moved quickly, as a nation, and increased production by 10 per cent annually, we would by 2015 be earning about 50 per cent of crude oil revenue from rubber alone.

Mr.  Michelin, called that because I cannot readily locate the documents pertaining to NES II, was also speaking to the wrong audience and in the wrong country. Nigerians, including those in the private sector, are not interested in large scale farming and long- term economic prospects.

The billionaires here prefer the forwarding and “backwarding” of fuel and the enormous gains from “subsidy” scams. Yet, the opportunity is still there for Nigeria to become one of the leading world exporters of rubber-based intermediate and finished products – if we reject exporting raw rubber.

It is estimated that about 15 billion kilograms of rubber are produced globally annually; out of which five billion are natural rubber. Low production of raw rubber provided the incentive for the production of synthetic rubber, which now accounts for two-thirds of rubber production. Yet, there is still a growing demand for natural rubber which Nigeria can tap into.

Benign neglect of rubber as national policy

Before embarking on writing this two-part series of articles on rubber, I undertook a study, together with paid readers, to go through the major Nigerian newspapers, for the last three years, with one objective in mind – to find out how often top government officials, including the President, had mentioned rubber, in their public statements.

As a corollary to that, the quick study was designed to find out what our national policy on rubber production is. Little was expected; but the result was shocking. There was nothing on rubber – a product, which if widely cultivated can earn more foreign exchange than oil in the near future; and certainly more than cassava.

No Minister of Agriculture has mentioned it; perhaps none has even thought about it. The incumbent Minister of Agriculture, Dr Adesina, has focused attention on the huge food import bill and the need to reduce it. That is a quarter of a step in the right direction.

He has also raised alarm about the impending food scarcity which might result in widespread famine. That is another quarter step in the positive direction. But, his promotion of the cassava bread, at this time, represents a turn around from the steps taken. Substitution of wheat with cassava is not our priority.

Growing more food locally, and a variety of food items including the lowly vegetables, is more of our need than the cassava bread option. More importantly, encouraging greater output of cash crops, rubber especially, will help to offset the food import bill. Fortunately, Nigeria, has a competitive advantage in rubber production – which we are not exploiting at the moment and have no plans to export in the future.


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