Many rice dealers and retailers in Lagos State and other places are still in shock over the disappearance of LAKE RICE, which used to be visible in markets during the festive period from 2016 when the state government under Governor Akinwunmi Ambode signed a partnership with his Kebbi State counterpart, Abubakar Atiku Bagudu.
The MoU between the Kebbi and Lagos State governments for the supply of LAKE (an acronym of Lagos and Kebbi) RICE was birthed in 2016.
But no sooner than Ambode left that the project suffered a serious setback and, as at today, there are indications that the MoU between the two states had collapsed.
The agreement was meant to be mutually beneficial as Kebbi is famous for rice production and Lagos has a huge market.
Those behind the initiative said it was meant to create a value chain whereby thousands of farmers in Kebbi would be involved while merchants in Lagos would have unfettered access to the produce.
Market or politics?
While some officials said the stoppage of the partnership was a temporary setback, others said political intrigues were responsible.
According to some of them, the purported rift between Bagudu, who is the Chairman of APC Governors Forum, and the National Leader of the party, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, affected the MoU while others said the initiative could not last because of market forces.
The rice, which was sold at N12,000 and N6,000 for 50kg and 25kg bags respectively, was largely embraced by residents of Lagos and other states in the South-West that usually thronged the many sale points.
However, soon after the 2019 elections when Ambode lost out, the supply of the rice became epileptic until it finally disappeared from the market.
Some of the marketers who spoke with one of our correspondents said they were at a loss as to the reason for the disappearance of the rice almost immediately after Ambode left office.
One of the dealers, Mrs Risikat Adam, said: “I used to purchase the rice in bulk at the rate of N12,000 per bag from the state government and sell at between N13,000 and N14,000.
“We also had the 10kg bag, which was sold for N2,500. This was an initiative we all applauded because it helped a lot in making rice available for the poor.”
Another dealer, a civil servant in the state who wouldn’t want his name in print, said they used to buy the rice with ease while some of them also served as retailers earning additional income.
“Throughout the period LAKE RICE was in the market, things were easy and many people could afford it but now prices of rice have gone astronomically high,” he said.
Competition from other varieties
A major rice dealer, Mr Sulaiman, said the partnership deal might have collapsed because of the springing up of many local rice firms due to the closure of all land borders in 2019.
“This made the demand for paddies to be on the rise and from what I gathered, Lagos was not getting as much supply as they used to get,” he said.
“Again, there are many locally produced rice varieties, which are even better than LAKE RICE.
“I am telling you this because I deal with different varieties of rice. We have several of them, which competed with LAKE RICE and which filled the vacuum when LAKE RICE disappeared from the market though at a relatively higher price.
“Also, you cannot rule out politics from the whole saga because the initiative virtually collapsed as soon as Governor Sanwo-Olu took over.
“It appears he was not disposed to continue with the initiative,” Mr Sulaiman said.
A rice value chain expert, Tolulope Daramola, said the disappearance of LAKE RICE could not be unconnected with high wire politics.
Daramola, who is the Founder of Menitosh Farm, said the fact that the Lagos State Government was developing its rice mill in Imota should not have “killed” the LAKE RICE, noting that Imota should have been an expansion to the project.
She said: “I am aware there is politics involved, the structure for business should not be fluid but that is what we have in the country.
“Another government will come in soon and insist on a new agreement and brand.
“But politics aside, the yield is lower. The amount invested is already invested and Imota should have been an expansion in the capacity not a nail in the coffin for the LAKE RICE.”
Sani Aliyu, a rice farmer in Kamba, Kebbi State, said it was unfortunate that a laudable programme was allowed to die.
“I am sad that the arrangement has collapsed. When they started the partnership, some people normally come to these areas in search of paddy.
“Some of us collected loans from banks and expanded our production capacity but a few years after, the much-celebrated partnership has fizzled out simply because of politics,” he said.
Daily Trust made several attempts to speak to the Commissioner for Agriculture in Lagos, Ms Bisola Olusanya, to no avail.
She did not respond to our correspondent’s enquiry. It is the same with the Chief Press Secretary to the governor, Mr Gboyega Akoshile.
Imota rice mill
It was learnt that the Lagos’ multi-billion naira 32-metric tonnes per hour rice mill at Imota, in Ikorodu, was initially billed to start production by the end of December 2020, but the take-off date has been pushed to the first quarter of 2021.
Former Commissioner for Agriculture, Mr Gbolahan Lawal, had said last year that when the mill comes on board, it will ensure a steady supply of freshly processed rice – about 2.4 million 50kg bags per annum – to Lagosians, in addition to over 250,000 jobs to be created in both the upstream and downstream sectors of the rice value chain.
Former Governor Ambode could not be reached for comment on Sunday. His spokesman while he was governor, Habib Haruna, did not respond to our correspondent’s request for comment on the alleged neglect of his principal’s project.
Government had cut ties
However, a council chairman close to Ambode, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the government had only cut ties with the Kebbi State Government, saying the rice value chain project “is still very much on course.”
He, however, said the Imota Rice Mill project being undertaken by the government would produce more than double of LAKE RICE’s turnover.
He also said he could not rule out politics from the stoppage of the LAKE RICE project.
No response to text messages
Also contacted on the status of the MoU, the Kebbi State Commissioner for Agriculture, Attahiru Maccido, referred our reporter to one Usman Balkore.
The commissioner forwarded the phone number of Balkore but it was switched off. He did not also respond to the text message sent to him.
A text message was sent to Governor Bagudu on Sunday but there was no response as at the time of filing this report.
A similar text message was earlier sent to his spokesman, Yahaya Sarki, when he did not pick his call but he has not responded.
Daily Trust reports that Bagudu had in October 2020 told a national daily (not Daily Trust) that “nothing has gone wrong with the MoU. It is just that we haven’t grown it (rice) to replace the market.
“When we entered into a partnership with Lagos, we did not intend the two states to be selling rice; we did it to demonstrate that Nigerians produce good rice.
“To provide a platform where people would move it to the highest standard so Nigerians would recognise the potential we have and have a great mindset about made in Nigeria rice.
“Now across the nation, there is belief and confidence in Nigerian rice, whether it is from Abakaliki, Ogoni, Kebbi, Jigawa, Taraba, and across the country. That is our first objective in that MoU,” he said.
The political connection
Governor Bagudu is reportedly angry with Tinubu because of how Ambode was pushed into political oblivion.
According to sources, this is why the governor is one of the anti-Tinubu figures within the APC.
It would be recalled that many APC governors rallied round Ambode’s ambition to secure a second term but the APC leadership in the state rejected the former governor at the instance of the Asiwaju.
A source said the LAKE RICE project would not have been dead if Ambode had remained in office.
With 2023 politicking already dominating discourse in the polity amidst the speculated ambition of Tinubu, many APC governors are reportedly working to scuttle the dream.
Another source in Tinubu’s camp, however, told our correspondent that no amount of opposition could truncate the rising popularity and acceptability of the Asiwaju.
When contacted, media aide to Asiwaju, Mr Tunde Rahman, insisted that the APC leader had no problem with Governor Bagudu.
He said: “Asiwaju has no problems whatsoever with Bagudu,” he said.