Nigerians Trade Europe's Greener Pastures For Rice Farming At Home

After a drop in oil prices left the Nigerian economy reeling, new government policies have boosted rice and other agricultural production. It's a boost to stay home for Nigerians eyeing emigration to Europe.

Rice farming in Wushishi, Nigeria
Nicole Macheroux-Denault

KURA — Like many of his fellow Nigerians, Abubakar Sani had big dreams to emigrate to Europe. But he never made it out of Libya. After finally returning to Nigeria, he decided to try rice farming, which has become a booming industry in the West African nation. Now, if anyone he meets talks about emigrating, he urges them to follow his example, rather than to try to leave the country in search of a better life.

But there is one hurdle.

"You need around 900 euros. That's all the capital a young man needs to change his life," says Sani, throwing up his arms to emphasize the point. "Then, within two years he can earn enough to feed his family and will never again think of escaping to Europe."

The 40-year-old, who farms in the state of Kano in northern Nigeria, says the staple could change the fortunes of his homeland. "Rice is Nigeria's new gold," he says, climbing out of the flooded rice field. "There is never enough but everyone wants it."

Times are changing in the West African country. Young men and women are going back to the countryside and earning a living. Not a fortune, but enough to escape the widespread unemployment and hopelessness engulfing the country. Five years ago there were only 450,000 rice farmers in Kano; now they number 1.5 million in that state alone. And Kano's harvest this year is expected to produce 2.5 million tons of rice, compared to 700,000 tons in 2015.

The booming industry is not an economic miracle but the result of a push by the Nigerian government to actively enforce agricultural policies after many years of neglect.

The developments are not only significant for Nigeria, but also could have consequences for Europe. According to the International Organization for Migration, in 2016, 37,551 Nigerians arrived in Italy via the Mediterranean, most of them leaving their country because they could not find work. This was a drastic spike compared to 2014, when only 9,000 Nigerians left to Italy, according to the IOM. In 2015 the number had already risen to 22,237.

Unless conditions in the country improve, the migration is expected to grow. Nigeria has a population of 170 million, making it the largest African state, and the population is expected to double within the next 30 years. But the booming rice industry may help stop many Nigerians from leaving.

Once more, Sani has sold 200 kilograms of rice at the market of Durumi Alewa. The market is the culmination of the rice farmer's work cycle. He usually loads up two motorcycle taxis with the heavy sacks of rice and jumps onto one himself. Despite the bumpy ride, he arrives at the market brimming with confidence, talking and bargaining with the merchants. And he is always happily surprised by how well his harvest sells.

Today he earned 40,000 naira, about $110, a nice sum in a country where the average monthly wage is about $230. His earnings will more than cover his costs over the next few weeks. He has five more sacks of rice in the warehouse and the next harvest is waiting in the fields.

Sani, a devout Muslim, spends the rest of the day at home with his family. He sits cross-legged on the floor of his living room in his small house in the city of Kura, stroking the head of his 5-year-old son, who has fallen asleep in his lap. His wife brings the two other siblings a plastic plate of meat and rice before sitting down next her to her husband. "This is rice from my fields," he says proudly. Sani farms several fields in his community of Durumi Alewa. "I have so much to do that I can't even go into town any more. None of us have the time."

It was very different 10 years earlier. Back then, Sani met with smugglers in the provincial capital of Kano, 30 kilometers from Kura, to arrange his journey to Libya. Together with a few other young men from the same region he crossed the border into Niger, traveled to Agadez, through the Sahara, all the way to Libya's Mediterranean capital of Tripoli. "That was tough, really tough. We had so many problems along the way. It was horrendous."

Rice paddy fields in Nigeria — Photo: Jeremy Weate

He won't reveal many details of his arduous journey, but says this: "In Libya we paid $1,200 for a boat to take us across the Mediterranean to Italy." But a storm came during the night and a rumor spread that naval ships were patrolling the waters off the coast. "So we changed our minds and decided not get onto the boat."

The new staple food everywhere

But Sani could not go home either: He had to work in Libya for four years before he could pay for his journey back to Nigeria. He even had a bit of money left when he arrived, enough to rent a field and plant some rice. By now he owns several fields and can even afford to use pesticides. "Many of the rice farmers here could afford to go on the Hajj to Mecca after the last good harvest. Who would have thought this was possible a few years ago?"

Abubakar H. Alyu, the president of the Kano Association of Rice Farmers, has witnessed a veritable transformation. "Ten years ago there wasn't a single household with rice. Now it has become the staple food everywhere you go." Alyu is working on creating a public support project for young men and women who want to join the rice industry. The 54-year-old studied economics and business management in the United States and is considered incorruptible and independent.

"Grow rice and rise," says Kano Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje, smiling for the cameras during a photo session with local journalists in his sumptuously decorated office.

The message is bold and simple: "We are the most populous African nation. Our citizens should be productive, not a burden," Ganduje says, referring to the large number of Nigerians who have left for Europe. And finally he admits that Nigerian politicians like himself are also partially responsible for the migration wave. "We relied on income from oil production for much too long."

The declining price of crude oil eventually hit Nigeria hard and is one of the reasons for rising poverty in the country. "They say that prevention is preferable to having to find a cure. I think we missed our opportunity back then to promote economic projects that could have cushioned the blow of losing the income from crude oil production. But we have learned our lesson. The hard way, but better late than never."

And so the government began importing better seeds, building new roads and providing more land and tractors. Suddenly, the previously neglected agricultural sector began producing not only larger quantities of rice but also potatoes, wheat and tomatoes, other welcome sources of income. The underlying strategy is simple: make use of the large national market, reduce imports, guarantee self-sufficiency, followed by eventual export of goods.

Rice would be the perfect candidate for the last goal, since it is farmed in 34 of the 36 federal states, with up to three harvests a year. "I am quite sure that Nigeria will be able to support its own demand for rice and start exporting it, too, within the next year or two," says Alyu, the president of the rice growers association. "We're already getting inquiries, from Togo for example."

Non-governmental organizations and donor countries are already queuing up to offer hefty financial support for Nigeria's agricultural expansion, with the hope to stem the mass migration from the country. The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, for example, gave 17 million euros (nearly $20 million) last year to support a "green center of innovation," in addition to the 32.6 million euros they gave to other projects in Nigeria. Turkish companies are helping to modernize rice processing, with numerous international non-governmental organizations providing start-up programs for young Nigerians.

"Unfortunately, corruption in Nigeria is still quite extensive," says Alyu. "Foreign aid to the government often disappears within its corrupt infrastructure. Only direct, local investments really work."

This is also Sani's observation. "Young people lack the capital to start their own rice business but the government only helps those they know." The bureaucratic hurdles are still high and inhibit those who want to become rice farmers.

Still, Sani maintains that it is easy to stop young Nigerians from his region to cross the nearby border into Niger in search of a better life in Europe. It's that 900 euros he insists is all it takes to build "the base for supporting yourself and your family." He points at his chest and continues, "I know, I've done it. I was dumb to believe that everything would better in Europe. I have a good life here now."

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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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