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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
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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Smartphone on a selfie stick

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