A journey by any stranger to Ofada community in Obafemi Owode Local Government Area of Ogun State, would be filled with expectation; that one would see miles upon miles of lush, green or golden ready-to-harvest rice farmland. After all, ‘Ofadarice’ is everywhere. Almost every day, at social events where food is served or at fancy restaurants, people refer to the locally produced rice delicacy as ‘Ofada rice.’
But a visit to Ofada town revealed a different story of lost glory, or rather, lost source of common livelihood.
This correspondent spoke with residents of the community and their stories were the same. It was as if there was a general consensus among the residents, who had hitherto depended on rice farming as a major source of income, to simply down tools and forget about the job that had helped them to send their children to school, build houses and live comfortable lives.
In a humid weather, that did not do much to stop the heavy dust rising and blowing on the roads in Ofada, 70-year-old Pa Samuel Taiwo, sat in the front of his house with an array of hoes, shovels and diggers arranged as if they were for sale.
But they were not for sale, he said, when this correspondent approached him.
“We rent them out to those who want to go and work on building sites,” he said.
In Ofada, so many young men have become labourers; not ones that work on farmlands but manual labourers who earn a living at building sites because of the numerous new projects sprouting up around the community.
New structures rise everyday around the few old buildings that make up the original Ofada, like menacing hawks.
Like majority of indigenes of Ofada, Taiwo was a rice farmer.
“My whole life depended on rice farming. I was born into it. Through rice farming, I sent my children to school. Some of them are even abroad now. But I stopped cultivating rice long before I became too weak to handle strenuous work,” he said.
Why would a successful farmer stop something that had made his life so good? he was asked.
“Birds,” he said simply.
“Those things simply made farming impossible for us.”
According to the man, many years ago when things were going good for the people of Ofada and rice farming was a lucrative venture that made them very popular in the region, there were not so many birds.
He said years later, rice farming became an unprofitable venture when flocks of birds in their thousands would lay siege to a whole farmland and almost pick it clean of every grain of rice.
Taiwo said, “Rice farming became unprofitable. We had no means of controlling the birds because they were simply too many. We had to get to the farm as early as 6am and chase away birds till 8am because that is the period the birds move around in their thousands to look for food.
“We used different methods just to ensure that the birds did not clean out the farmland of every grain of rice. We used whistles which we blew regularly just to make enough noise so that the birds could stay at bay.
“Then, we ensured that everybody on the farm was armed with catapults which we shot into any part of the farm where we saw signs of birds. But all these were still not enough. We could not totally control them. Rice business became less and less profitable. It got to a stage that the stress of cultivating rice from planting to harvest was much more than the profit we realised from it.”
Taiwo, who spoke to Saturday PUNCH in Yoruba, said he stopped rice farming totally about eight years ago.
What is intriguing about Ofada is that much of the land that the villagers used for rice farming are no longer available.
Taiwo used to cultivate his rice on four acres of land but he promptly sold it as land developers shifted focus to the community.
“I sold my four acres and two plots and used the money to do business. That is what people are doing here now. A lot of people are coming here to buy land,” he said.
The man told Saturday PUNCH that he had not seen or eaten the locally-produced rice for a long time.
“I eat imported rice now. It is cheaper you know. Getting Ofada rice to buy here is not easy anymore,” he said.
To buttress his point, he called a woman that was passing by. He said the woman was a locally-produced rice merchant. The man asked if she had enough to sell at the moment.
“Rice is not available now. The only place one is likely to get is at the rice mill at Owode, (a neighbouring town, which is kilometres away). A lot of people are not buying it which is why we don’t bother storing it in the house,” she said.
That people were not producing the local rice was a different matter, but more surprising was that people were not buying it.
This correspondent went in search of a food vendor in the town to find out the reason why people were not buying the locally-produced rice.
A food vendor, Madam Shotomi, smiled when she was asked if she had Ofada rice on her menu and if people bought it. She answered with another question.
“Which one do you think people here will buy if I sell imported rice for N70 per plate and I sell local rice for N200 per plate?” Madam Shotomi asked.
In Ofada, the scarcity of the local rice has driven up the price as a result of the fact that the pockets of farmers who produce it, go through a lot of stress to successfully cultivate in any particular season.
Shotomi told Saturday PUNCH that the same measure of imported rice sold for N400 is sold for N800 if it is local rice.
Ironically, our correspondent could not easily find an individual in the community who still cultivates rice. Ofada rice derives its name from Ofada, where it used to be cultivated in high scale.
Young men in the community, who have not gone to building sites to work, take up business such as selling CDs, operating barbing salons and selling electrical appliances. A number of them also operate commercial motorcycles as well because this is a good business in Ofada where people regularly need to access building sites.
When Saturday PUNCH spoke to some of the youths in the community, they explained why they would never consider going back to rice farming.
Ayobami Michael sat in the front of his shop humming a tune in a relaxed mood. The 27-year-old young man said no one should expect him to go back to rice farming, “and use my hands to till the ground in this generation.”
He said that was what drove many of them out of rice farming.
Michael said, “We only laugh when the government says young men should go back to farming. Which young man do you think wants to go to farm nowadays and use the old crude method used by our parents?
“But the most important thing that drove people away from farming here was when birds became uncontrollable. It was like people were wasting their energy on rice farming because the birds made it unprofitable. Who wants to do work that would not bring profit? We would rather become artisans or operate businesses that would not give us much headache and bring some profit.”
Michael was asked if he still ate local rice regularly. “I cannot afford it,” he said.
The last time he ate one was about four months ago during a festival in the community, the young man said.
Bent on finding a rice farmer in the community, this correspondent asked okada riders for direction to any rice farm anywhere around the community.
None of them was helpful until a man gave direction to a rice mill owned by a company.
It turned out that the company is owned by a private individual who decided to resuscitate authentic ‘Ofada rice’ which hitherto had become non-existent because the residents no longer cultivate it.
At the mill, a number of workers were threshing and bagging unmilled rice.
A worker, who said his boss was not around, offered to speak with this correspondent on condition of anonymity.
He said the company has a 48-acre farm on which it cultivates rice.
Asked if he knew of any other farm producing rice in a relatively large quantity in the community, he said there was none.
How did they manage to get this much produce out despite the problem of birds?
The man said, “We were able to harvest this much because we planted in large quantity. That is why the residents could not make much profit. You have to have a very large farmland to be able to make profit here so that even if birds would lay siege to it, they would not be able to finish everything.
“Then we went as far as installing drums in different parts of the farm. We beat the drums at intervals to send the birds away. Then we use catapults as well. We position people in different parts of the farm solely for chasing birds away. Handling the birds is like waging a war.”
The farm uses a mini harvester to harvest its produce, one which the residents of the community would not have been able to afford if they were to consider cultivating rice in large quantity.
The man who spoke with Saturday PUNCH said the mini-harvester was not for rent but explained that he knew of a man who rented out farm machineries.
“The man rents out mini-harvesters such as this for N80,000 per day,” he said.
He explained that the batch of rice being processed at the moment was planted in July. He said from planting to harvest, rice cultivation took three months.
According to him, the method used in other rice producing countries, which many people might not be able to afford is netting. They simply place nets over the whole of the farm to keep birds away.
In Ofada, getting land for farming at the moment is almost an impossible venture.
A resident told Saturday PUNCH that every available land around Ofada had been bought by developers, some of whom intend to build estates on them.
“When people come to Ofada to get land now, they usually travel kilometres into the outskirts of the community to get land. All the empty lands you see all around have been bought by those who want to build houses on them,” he said.
The traditional ruler of Ofada, Oba Rabiu Adewunmi, an 82-year-old king, was quite helpful in explaining the enormity of the scourge that had “stolen rice farming away from Ofada people.”
He said, “I was a rice farmer and all I knew how to do was cultivating rice. The big land on which this palace is built was bought with the proceeds of rice farming while the palace itself was built with the proceeds.
“In fact, I have another house in Abeokuta built with the proceeds of farming. I was born into it. That is to tell you how lucrative the business was for Ofada people in those days.
“But then, the birds came. In those days, there wasn’t so much bird problem. The business was good. People of the community were prospering from rice farming. But what can one do when it became all sweat and no gain?”
He said years ago, a government in Ogun State brought some foreigners to the community and requested for an expanse of land to cultivate rice in order to resuscitate that cultural identity of the community.
But two years later, the foreigners packed up and left.
“We gave them a very large expanse of land. The farm was incredible. It was like a sea green grass; well-tended and beautiful. They put in place outposts at different parts of the farm. But the birds here came in their thousands and laid siege to the farm. The foreign farmers were forced to leave after a few years,” the king said.
Like his subjects, Adewunmi eats imported rice even though he has a supply of local rice at home, which he said he occasionally requests for.
The Nigerian Institute for Social and Economic Research has always emphasised the nutritional value of locally-produced rice.
At a seminar organised by the institute in Ibadan, Oyo State, the former Director-General of the institute, Prof. Adesoji Adesanya, said rice production could only be improved in Nigeria if the Federal Government subsidised it.
He noted that the economic value that should have been derived from local rice was being eroded because more Nigerians were consuming the imported variety.
He said, “Agriculture requires more subsidies so that it does not die off. That is why some villages in parts of the country that are known for the production of local rice no longer do it.
“What we need to do is to sensitise Nigerians on the need to consume more of local rice. The local rice contains more protein, which one cannot find in the imported rice because of its processing.”
Nigeria is blessed with a vast expanse of arable land that experts have consistently asked the government and investors to utilise for agriculture.
While the Federal Government said it planned to ban the importation of rice in 2014, the need to enhance rice cultivation in Nigeria has also got attention from state governments in Nigeria.
Meanwhile, the Ogun State Government has said that it will partner with the Malaysian government, which is a robust rice producing country, to revamp the state’s agricultural sector to improve rice production.
“The idea of a second generation farming will encourage our youths to go into farming and enable us to capture the young ones for agricultural activities,” Governor Ibikunle Amosun said during a meeting with a delegation of the Malaysian Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry led by the Secretary-General of the ministry, Dato Mohammed Hashim Abdullah recently.
The state also recently allocated 500 hectares of land in Eggua, Yewa North Local Government Area of Ogun State to its Lagos State counterpart for the cultivation of rice.
The coming years will determine the seriousness of the Federal Government about making rice production.
The Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Kaduna State Government said in December 2013, that it would train 300,000 farmers to boost rice production.