By Ifatu Agbo
The cloudy smoke coiling into the sky from the kiln of the multi-billion rice mill at Elele-Alimini, in Emohua Local Government Area of Rivers State, seemed to be writing a sentence.
For the NDDC team that came to inspect the plant, the billows from the boiler was an invitation to farmers to move into the fields to produce the paddy that will keep the machines running.
The rice mill was built, test-run and technically commissioned by the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC in 2008, before it was leased to the Elephant Group Plc. in 2017 to run for efficiency and sustainability.
The NDDC Acting Executive Director Projects, Dr Cairo Ojougboh, who led the inspection team, was informed by the Quality Control and Plant Manager, Mr. Wisdom Innosiri, that their major concern was getting paddy to feed the plant.
Going by the original plans of the NDDC, the rice mill was meant to be a catalyst for the development of rice farms across the Niger Delta region. The Commission was to establish an Out-Growers Scheme of 1,000 rice farmers in the region to provide the stock for the mill and ensure the sustainability of the rice processing plant.
However, this has not materialized because the plant was idle for about 10 years after completion. Today, it is a different story and the NDDC is trying get back to the initial plan. After inspecting the 24 tonnes per hour plant, Ojougboh could not hide his frustration that so much time had been lost in the drive to boost agriculture in the Niger Delta region.
He said that the NDDC had anticipated the need to encourage rice farmers to take advantage of the huge capacity of the Elele rice mill and had budgeted for a comprehensive agricultural programme that accommodated the needs of rice farmers.
Ojougboh lamented: “We prepared farmers and they were ready. The Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, guaranteed N10billion support for the project but when the budget got to the National Assembly, the two chairmen of the committees on NDDC removed the N10billion for the project.
“Because of that action, the wet lands of the Niger Delta that would have been booming with rice farming, have been lying fallow. This would have created employment for our women and youths. But the two chairmen of the National Assembly committees preferred the supply of plastic chairs and tables to schools that are non-existent to active and lucrative engagements of the people of the region.”
There is no doubt that the success of the rice mill depended on the availability of a key raw materials; namely paddy from local farmers in the Niger Delta region. This point was further underscored by the Administration and Station Manager of the Elephant Group, Mr Olabode Ojo, who appealed to the Federal Government and the NDDC to assist the rice mill by encouraging out-grower farmers that would be supplying paddy for the mill.
Ojo said that the company had spent over N2 billion retrofitting the rice mill to meet the needs of the market, stating: “Currently, we are doing six tonnes per hour but we are increasing this to 12 tonnes per hour. Our target is to be able to process 50 tonnes of paddy per year.
“When we started two years ago, we met a plant that had been abandoned for long and it was built for the kind of rice that is no longer marketable in Nigeria. So, we had to acquire new machines, as well as change some of the ones we met on ground.”
For the NDDC Director of Agriculture and Fisheries, Mr Doodei Week, the fact that the rice mill would also provide employment opportunities for youths in the region and create more opportunities for farmers to reap from their produce, was a significant gain.
He remarked: “It is expected that a minimum of 5,000 out-grower farmers would be supported through NDDC intervention to provide the needed input, which is the rice paddy for the mill. It is a revival of the agricultural sector in the Niger Delta region, using rice value chain as an option.
“The rice mill will serve not only the NDDC-supported farmers but other rice growers across the region. If all these come together, rice production in the region will increase substantially because the region has a comparative advantage in rice production with several bodies of water and arable land.”
“Funding will come mainly from the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, Anchor-Borrowers Programme, while land will be sourced from the communities, especially rice-growing communities. The Agricultural Development Programme, ADPs, in the states will also provide extension services to the farmers.”
Obviously, funding is critical for all the programmes and keeping faith with the provisions in the budget is equally important. In the light of this, the NDDC Acting Executive Director Projects found it necessary to appeal to President Muhammadu Buhari to prevail on the National Assembly not to distort the NDDC 2020 budget, so that agricultural programmes that would benefit the people were not truncated.
He regretted that the NDDC budget for 2019 could not achieve the Commission’s target for agricultural development because the provisions for the CBN, Anchor-Borrowers Programme were removed.
According to Ojougboh, another programme that suffered was the $129.17 million Livelihood Improvement Family Enterprises Programme in the Niger Delta (LIFE-ND), driven by NDDC in partnership with the International Fund for Agricultural Development, IFAD.
He lamented: “The IFAD partnership was removed completely and replaced with ghost training programmes which we refused to be part of.”
This was a big blow to the international partnership which the NDDC had built with IFAD with the full endorsement of the Federal Government.
According to the NDDC Acting Managing Director, Professor Kemebradikumo Pondei, the LIFE-ND and the CBN Anchor Borrowers programmes were two very important agricultural projects, which the Commission was deeply committed to.
He said that the projects would essentially shift our people away from subsistence farming into sustainable farming that can provide empowerment for them.
Pondei stated: “The LIFE-ND programme is key in the Federal Government’s agricultural policy for the Niger Delta region and that makes it very important for the NDDC to participate actively because you cannot be talking about infrastructure alone when people are hungry. When people are hungry, they can be angry.
“The Life-ND programme has the first phase of six years with parallel financed from NDDC and to the tune $30million and additional six years of finance in the future from other partners, which spans twelve years implementation period.”
He said that the essence of the programme was to enhance the income and livelihood of the youths of the Niger Delta, provide food security and create jobs on sustainable basis in the region.
Pondei noted that the project had two main components, namely; enhancement of the economy of the rural youths and the project management and coordination to be effectively carried out between the ministry and the NDDC.
He observed: “The project directly supports the Federal Government’s agricultural policy and the strategic framework for youth employment and job creation. The strategic framework addresses the large and growing number of restless unemployed youths, especially in the rural areas. It seeks inclusion of young people in profitable agribusiness.”
The NDDC boss stated that agriculture was the way forward and that should explain the Commission’s special attention to agriculture as a major intervention that could get the youths to be gainfully employed.
Pondei stressed that the focus on agriculture would help to diversify the resource base of the country and reduce the dependence on oil and gas in the Niger Delta, adding that the NDDC had always recognized agriculture as the way forward for Nigeria and the Niger Delta in particular.
He said that apart from engaging 38,250 youths and women, the LIFE-ND programme would also establish 900 enterprise incubators from among the target group.
The NDDC boss said that the Commission needed to get agriculture working as a viable enterprise that would create jobs in the Niger Delta region but that it required a major shift of mindset, such that people would begin to see agriculture as a business and not just any other programme.