By Morenike Taire
Earlier in the month, Governor of Cross River State, Ben Ayade, disclosed he was having an ultra modern rice mill built, and would have bagged Cross Rivers State rice on the ‘shelves’ in time for Christmas. The announcement was greeted by congratulations.
Before Ayade, various others have made similar boasts or promises, depending on what side of the divide you are on. If you are one of the thousands caught in the stampede last Christmas when Lagos State declared availability for their own Lake rice, you might feel a tinge of indifference- if not irritation- at Ayade’s pronouncement to this effect.
If Cross Rivers stays true to its claim, it will join twelve other Nigerian states producing rice for Nigeria, including Ebonyi, which has always produced rice; Ogun, whose rice production expansion is being threatened by real estate; and Kebbi, which boasts that it has produced many rice millionaires. Last year, Mallam Garba Shehu proudly announced that Nigeria is now the second largest producer of rice in the world.
Nigerians of a certain generation love to recall a bittersweet time, when the eating of rice was a weekly affair- mostly on Sundays. The ritual in Nigerian homes was similar. On Saturday, children gathered around a large, metal tray to pick the stones out of the particular batch of rice earmarked for cooking the next day. Some would argue it was more a question of picking rice out of the stones.
A hapless chicken would probably be sent on the journey of no return to its ancestors with a view to accompanying the rice, on Sunday, as a fitting combination for a satisfying meal. Even the most impoverished homes in those days could afford to either buy a chicken live, or keep a litter of them free ranging around the neighbourhood until they put on enough flesh to be noticed by their merciless owner.
No one can tell at what time in particular that rice replaced the various staples across board in various parts of the country. Yam, rice and cassava based staples, mostly mealed or pounded, became relegated as the appeal of rice grew. Today, it is the rare Nigerian family that can get through the day without a meal of rice.
And we have the Thais to thank for that, alongside the Vietnamese and all the other nationals who have devised means by which their own agelong staple can be put on their tables cleaner and cheaper.
And it is not necessarily a strictly Asian thing. In African countries such as Sierra Leone where rice is the staple because of the topography, ways have been found to turn it into all kinds of processed foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner at affordable costs.
There is nothing innately wrong with adopting rice as our national staple, particularly in this fast food age; neither is the fact that most of the rice we consume is imported a particularly catastrophic disaster. Millions of schools, homes and hotels in developed countries use orange juice as the most preferred drink at breakfast, and they are all non-tropical countries whose climate cannot support the growth of oranges. They have other staples of sorts that are imported from tropical countries, particularly avocadoes and coconut oil/milk- staples of the health conscious today.
Our national dependence on rice imports is astounding on a few bases, however and yes, not least of all because we have the right soil, climate and know-how with which to supply our rice taste on a permanent basis.
The real emergency is about our ability to control the quality of what comes into our country, and consequently are left open to all manner of evils including Genetic Modification and even overstripping of rice grains, all which leaves our children at great risk of malnutrition. Spikes in incidents of type 2 diabetes and kidney disease have also been linked to the type of rice we consume. We have even heard of plastic rice, a never before heard of phenomenon.
The reason we urgently need Nigeria-grown rice is not so much our need to preserve our overstretched forex earnings or to replace oil as our main forex earner; but rather to ensure we get rice onto Nigerian tables that is wholesome, healthy and cheaper than anything we are importing, in real terms. As it stands, our local rice is not being produced and distributed as efficiently as we have the capacity to.
The conundrum of rice is a bit of a metaphor for everything that is wrong with our economy today. Our rice has lost the common touch, and is available only to the rich, connected, or socially aware. It is fast becoming the ladder by which political wannabes can climb to reckoning and those that have arrived can remain at destination.
Local rice is not local rice until it is significantly cheaper than imported rice.