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Bello on his farm, ready for transplant

At eight every morning, hundreds of farmers throng Birni Sala, an upland farming area along Gubin Ka (River Ka), in Jega town of Kebbi State. At about the same time, thousands more head to their farms in other Kebbi communities like Argungu, Bagudo, Augie, Kangiwa, Kalgo, and Yauri.

Although farming has always been a popular profession in Kebbi, it was, until recently, not considered a lucrative vocation, especially among educated folks.

All that changed in 2016.

In late 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari launched the pilot phase of the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme (ABP), spurring thousands to debut as rice growers on at least one hectare of land each. Even for existing farmers, pre-ABP, the programme, despite its downside, helped improve operations.

One of the debutants, Umaru Salihu, is a level nine health worker in the state civil service where he earns about N34,000 monthly. “Month to month,” Mr. Salihu said, “I was suffering. Before the end of the month, I would have finished my salary and be waiting for the next one.”

Encouraged by Umaru Alhassan, the Chairman of Jega Rice Farmers’ Association to enlist for ABP, Mr. Salihu got one hectare of land at Zariyar Kala-Kala in Bagudo to grow rice. Now, he has 10-hectare farmland, five of which he currently cultivates. He started with one hectare in the beginning of 2016 when he became an ABP beneficiary.

“Now, I have confidence. I have hope. I can support my family very well and buy what I want,” he said, but quickly added, “Not that I am very rich; but whether they (government) pay or not, I don’t care. Wetin concern me? I have hope!”

Mr. Salihu’s story is not unique. It offers a window into the experiences of many others who only depended on meagre salaries from poor employment or were unemployed.

“Apart from civil servants, many of our youth involved in thuggery and drug abuse, or those doing petty jobs in Lagos or Abuja, are on the farm now since the (Anchor) Borrowers’ Programme was introduced,” said Mr. Alhassan, speaking at the family compound he shares with a former electoral chief, Attahiru Jega, after the day’s toil.

The ABP?

Days of investigation by PREMIUM TIMES across farms in Kebbi State show that through the ABP, Nigeria, under the leadership of Mr. Buhari is making a silent but fast-paced, revolutionary march towards self-reliance in rice production, the most popular staple food in the country.

In an official statement that followed the launch of the ABP in November 2015, the Central Bank of Nigeria, which coordinates the programme, “set aside N40 billion from the N220 billion Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Development Fund for farmers at a single-digit interest rate of 9 per cent.”

The ABP mainly targets small-holder subsistence farmers with a view to helping them scale their businesses to commercial level. It also targets millers with the aim of increasing their capacity utilisation.

At the launch, Mr. Buhari disclosed that Nigeria was spending not less than one trillion naira on the importation of food items that could have been produced locally, a situation the CBN said was contributing “greatly to the depletion of the nation’s foreign reserves, especially in the face of low oil revenue resulting from falling oil prices.”

The Central Bank said it had decided to shift from merely concentrating on price, monetary, and financial system stability to acting as a financial catalyst in specific sectors of the economy, particularly agriculture, in an effort to create jobs on a mass scale; improve local food production; and conserve scarce foreign reserves through the ABP.

The implementation of the programme involves the CBN, the Bank of Agriculture, the Nigerian Agricultural Insurance Corporation, state governments, integrated millers and farmers.

THE POLICY

Enrolment in ABP is two-way. Unlike Mr. Salihu who is engaged under the public sector arrangement, Usman Mayaki works with Labana Rice, a Kebbi-based rice mill involved in the programme alongside Humza, another mill in Kano State.

In Kebbi State, there are 73,941 beneficiaries cultivating 77,583 hectares, according to a document the Central Bank released to PREMIUM TIMES.

But in separate interviews, the Kebbi Deputy Governor, Samaila Yombe; the Commissioner of Agriculture, Garba Dadinga, and the permanent secretary of the ministry, Mohammed Lawal, claimed there are 78,000 beneficiaries in the state.

About 70,000 of these were enrolled under the public sector arm of the programme, with the remaining eight thousand in the private sector level –Labana and Humza.

In terms of local government distribution, there are 21 local government areas in Kebbi State, with each having between 3,000 and 6,000 ABP beneficiaries under the public sector arrangement.

Officials and farmers say beneficiaries were offered loans to cultivate one hectare each. With documents from the CBN showing there are more hectares than beneficiaries, it appears some farmers got support for more than one hectare each.

The General Manager of Labana Rice, Abdullahi Zuru, however said no farmer under the private sector arm got assistance for more than one hectare.

By December 2016, the CBN had disbursed N11.7 billion (N11,722,565,400) in the state to both the government and the private sector arms, the bank’s document released to PREMIUM TIMES revealed.

“About N11 billion was disbursed,” the state agriculture commissioner, Mr. Dadinga, said.

For those in the government category, the CBN disbursed the loans through the Bank of Agriculture, and deposit money banks in the case of the private sector, with each beneficiary compulsorily presenting bank verification number.

“The state came in at the point of BVN (registration),” Mr. Dadinga said.

He explained that the state government provided manpower to ensure all beneficiaries went through the registration in all the local government areas.

But the state government played a bigger role than just helping farmers have BVNs.

Apart from helping in the recovery of the loans and supervising the grouping of the beneficiaries into cooperative associations registered under its Ministry of Commerce, the Permanent Secretary, Mr. Lawal, said the state helped verified the farmlands.

This is to ensure the loan was not diverted to other purposes than rice farming, the permanent secretary said. He said the government officials went to each beneficiary’s farm as part of the identification process.

Mr. Lawal’s claim however appears not to have applied in all places.

In Augie, Aliyu Shehe, who heads a group of beneficiaries, said “they (government) didn’t verify any farm; they gave assistance without seeing farms.”

The remark by Mr. Shehe, an elderly seasoned rice farmer, was corroborated by various farmers, including a university lecturer cum farmer, who asked not to be named, but spoke at Masamatu, Argungu; as well as Hafiz Sanusi and Mallam Kashibu at Kwallaga, also in Argungu.

“Yes, they came,” Mr. Salihu, the health worker turned farmer, said, confirming the permanent secretary’s claim for his area. He has his farm in Bagudo.

For the out-growers under the private sector arrangement, the CBN gave money to the millers’ bankers which in turn credited the farmers, having been asked to open accounts with the companies’ bankers.

For both categories, extension workers provided training, farmers and officials said.

To ensure adequate insurance, the NAIC was brought in, the CBN spokesperson, Isaac Okorafor, said.

However, PREMIUM TIMES did not see any evidence of NAIC’s role and Kebbi officials did not mention the insurance agency at all. Rather, farmers who experienced downturn or could not use the loans during last year’s dry season farming have had their tenure extended in order to reinvest and be able to repay.

The state government, in an effort led by the deputy governor, Mr. Yombe, is now helping to rally farmers to pay back the loans to the CBN through the BOA.

“We are recovering about four million naira weekly,” Mr. Yombe said.

ON THE FARMS…COMPLAINTS, ALLEGATIONS

Alhaji Shehe displaying certificate of participation in an ABP training programme
Alhaji Shehe displaying certificate of participation in an ABP training programme

In the beginning, the beneficiaries believed they would get N210,000 to cultivate one hectare each. This was not disputed by officials of the state in separate interviews. Mr. Zuru, the Labana General Manager, and farmers engaged by his company under the private ABP also confirmed this.

While the private farmers got cash and equipment totalling N210,000 each, those in the public arrangement did not and felt short-changed.

Some of the farmers under the government arrangement said they were disappointed by the manner of disbursement and final sum of the loan. They were paid in two batches: N49,000 and then N38,000 in cash, plus pumping machine for irrigation and inputs such as fertilizer, seeds, herbicide and urea. All these total between N156,000 and N160,000 according to a template provided by the government.

Scores of farmers confirmed this to PREMIUM TIMES.

Not just that they got below what they expected, the assistance came after they had started dry season farming last year.

Apart from receiving less than the N210,000 they expected, the university lecturer at Masamatu, like many of the old farmers found the seeds and the pumping machine needless because they had these materials of their own before.

Mr. Alhassan in Jega and Mr. Sanusi in Argungu made that point in separate interviews.

“Nobody is using their seed,” said the university lecturer, backing Mr. Shehe’s point. “We didn’t collect the seeds because we have ours.”

Further, the farmers alleged the list of beneficiaries was padded, with state government officials adding names of friends, family members and political cronies who diverted the loans for other purposes.

“I submitted 1,700 names, but at the end of the day 3,200 were given,” said Mr. Alhassan, who is the chairman of rice farmers in Jega. “They are neither farmers nor intending farmers. We even protested.”

Even Mr. Salihu asked the government to understand there are “paper farmers” and real farmers.

“The allegation of diversion is a crazy assumption,” said Mr. Dadinga, the commissioner. “The CBN did not release any money to the government but to the farmers through the BOA.”

“I have asked anybody to show me one person who benefited but didn’t use the money for the purpose. If money was diverted, there would not have been rice as we now have it and that would have been exposed now that we are recovering the loan.”

The CBN released for each farmer about N156,000-N160,000 through the BOA, he said, adding that the remaining was held by the apex bank.

The CBN, according to its spokesperson, never promised N210,000 in the first place and insisted that the allegation of withholding funds was unfounded. The apex bank said what was given to each farmer was what was provided.

Mr. Dadinga admitted though that the loans did not reach farmers on time. He blamed this on the process of BVN registration, which involved transporting farmers in remote areas to centres across the LGAs where there was network.

“All (of) that hindered the disbursement of fund to farmers,” the official said.

He also explained the government’s decision to buy the equipment for the farmers instead of giving them the total sum in cash.

“Many of them would not buy the inputs or the equipment needed,” said Mr. Dadinga said.

The CBN, BOA, NAIC and the state government hired the suppliers of the input and equipment, he said.

BOOM!

Mr. Salihu hired three hands to work on his Zariyar Kala-Kala, Bagudo farm.

“I give each of the three N15,000 monthly,” he said.

So, despite the constraints, ABP meant an opener of a new lease of life for him and other new farmers, especially those from the no-job-at all background. They became employed directly, and were able to create opportunities for more persons to be engaged.

It is also the same for the older farmers.

So, through ABP, Nigeria may have produced hundreds of thousands of direct and indirect jobs in the rice production value chain.

“Considering the direct beneficiaries, those who bag rice, load bags in trucks, mechanics who repair pumping machines, petrol stations, food sellers, millers who hire new staff etc., more than 700 thousand jobs (were) created along that cycle,” said Mr. Dadinga, corroborating the permanent secretary’s claims.

In an interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Mr. Zuru, the boss of Labana with two plants of combined capacity to process 16 tonnes per hour, said his firm was not reaching 35 per cent capacity utilisation before the ABP, even while sourcing rice paddies from outside Kebbi State.

“Now, we are close to full capacity utilization,” he enthused.

Mr. Zuru further explained that enormous market has been created for millers and merchants to purchase paddies with the increased cultivation of 500,000-hectare Kebbi FADAMA land along River Niger and River Rima.

Almost all farmers interviewed across Kebbi said ABP helped them significantly improve their livelihoods – though they had complaints. None of them was asked to refund the loan at the end of last year’s dry season for which they got the loan originally.

Instead, they have extended the tenure, with recovery just underway. They were able to use the loans for last year’s wet season, since they complained they had already commenced operation for the dry season before the assistance arrived.

Kebbi produced over one million tonnes of rice last year, officials of the CBN and the state said.

However, not all rice farmers in the state are ABP beneficiaries.

With the bumper harvest recorded last year, millers and rice merchants, including those based outside Kebbi, have seen a veritable market in the state. The demand for rice is rising, thus pushing more people to the farm to satisfy the demand.

“I sell to merchants from Zuru,” said Mr. Salihu. “They will call me on phone to ask if I have rice.”

There is no worry about sale, farmers said. They have multiple options: sell to millers, directly to consumers, merchants or the state government which in turn sell to millers.

Mr. Zuru disclosed that Labana Rice doubled the number of its out-growers from 3,500 it had when ABP started. The figure is separate from “more people we have employed directly because we have more rice paddies, and our capacity utilization has significantly improved.”

The rice farmers barely know the hardship being experienced by others around the country as the economy sank into recession. The farmer produces about 100 bags from his one hectare farm. With a bag selling for N10,000-12,000 at the market, he is making over one million naira. The farmers said they spend less than N200,000 within the about five-month cycle of growing rice.

CBN told PREMIUM TIMES the programme has been extended to 16 states after Kebbi.

If the Kebbi success is replicated in other places, it is possible for Nigeria to locally satisfy her rice demand in three or four years; and through that process, conserve foreign exchange and create thousands of jobs.

Importantly, replicating the Kebbi success will also help take millions of poor Nigerians out of poverty, and make thousands of farmers millionaires.

“Come to Kebbi, you will get land to grow rice and become a millionaire quickly,” Mr. Salihu invited PREMIUM TIMES’ reporter as they both exited the farm.

This article is a product of a partnership between PREMIUM TIMES and #Buharimeter to fact-check the viability or otherwise of the federal government’s Anchor Borrowers Programme (ABP).

#Buharimeter is an initiative of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) with support from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) and the Department for International Department (DFID).