Demand for rice is constantly rising in Nigeria. In 2019, the country’s rice import is expected to increase 13% to 3.4 million tons, making Nigeria the second largest importer of rice in the world after China. In response, the Nigerian government is increasing efforts to develop the country’s agriculture, so that more food can be produced domestically to meet the growing needs, and preserve foreign exchange for other economic purposes. By means of an ever-growing population and increasing preference for rice over traditional coarse grains, the needs to boost agricultural yields are pressing.
In the Kebbi State located in the north-west of Nigeria, a Chinese rice farm has been thriving for over 13 years. The farm has near 1000 hectares under cultivation and employs more than 80 permanent local workers. It also provides over 2000 periodic job positions to nearby villages. In harvest seasons, the farm is covered by endless golden waves of rice, with harvesters riding through them.
The beginning of a venture
In 2005, when the farmland was acquired by the CGCOC Group, a Chinese company originally concentrated in the field of construction, the situation of the land was drastically different from the prosperity that can be seen today. Wang Xuemin, an agricultural expert from the Hubei province currently in charge of the farm’s operation, was one of the starting members of the Warra farm. When he thought back to the first days of the farm, he told about the great difficulties that he encountered. Warra Farm is located in a remote area, and back then, there were few residents in the nearby village. In the fields, weed grew stronger than the crops. Agriculture in Nigeria presented various challenges experienced by Wang Xuemin and his team, including uneven fields, lack of water, inefficiency of pesticides and machines, lack of fertilizers, and many others.
Wang Xuemin recalls one instance when,while working on the uncultivated land, he had his first encounter with local residents. “I was working in the fields when I suddenly saw a group of people charging at us, roaring very angrily, and it looked like they were about to devour us.”
The people’s fury confused the new arrivals. In the following days, members of the team visited many local people with reputation, inquiring them about possible causes of people’s anger and searching for a solution. They finally found out that when the area was not yet leased by the Chinese company, some nearby villagers had reclaimed a small amount of land to cultivate rice. When the company arrived, the villagers were worried that they would be driven away and thus, no longer able to procure the limited amount of rice they had in their diet. They therefore, came up with this strategy to get the upper hand and scare the Chinese away.
Having learned about the people’s concern, the Chinese company decided to let local residents continue to grow rice on some of the leased land. People’s anger quelled, and the Chinese team was able to resume their operation.
Cultivating rice, cultivating relationships
However, when people from distinct cultural backgrounds suddenly clash in day-to-day activities, not everything always works smoothly. Since 2007, the Chinese team began to employ local people to work in the Warra Farm. As in many cases of Chinese agricultural operations in Africa, the local workers were first unaccustomed to the Chinese way of farming and were reluctant to accept. When transplanting the rice seedlings, the Chinese technique is to plant one single seedling each time and to plant them in perfect straight lines, so that each seedling has enough space to grow. The local workers, however, did not see the necessity of paying such scrupulous attention and clung to their usual way of extensive farming. This frustrated the Chinese team as one of their purposes of starting this farm was to demonstrate good agricultural practices so that local farmers could also increase their yields. However, the work done by local employees were unsatisfactory for the Chinese agricultural experts.
To persuade local people to adopt the Chinese technique, the team had to first demolish the cultural barrier, establish personal connections with the locals and gain their trust. The team gradually learned about their habits and living situation. For instance, when the Chinese team learned that local farmerslike to sing and dance, theystarted to join them and brought Chinese music to the party as well. As the Chinese experts became part of the community, the local people also accepted the meticulous transplantation of rice seedlings. They improved enormously on their rice cultivation techniques, learned to operate agricultural machines, and today, some of them have taken management positions of Warra Farm. As the Chinese team developed farming techniques suitable to the local environment over the years, rice yields increased from 30% to 100% simply by changing the way of farming. Average annual income of the Warra Farm employees grew from $350 to around $700, and more importantly, their households also began to grow rice for more income.
Wang Xuemin named as honorary chief Source: CCTV
The promise of future
As Warra Farm transformed from the former wasteland to a flourishing farm, the area around it also began to see more activities. People from the nearby villages were attracted to the farm, riding on motorcycles to sell water and food in the fields. More residents moved to the nearby village and some people even started their restaurant business. The village gradually grew to become a small town. Ibrahim, Wang Xuemin’s long-time driver, was also among the people drawn to the prospects of the farm. At first, he had forced himself to work in such a remote place for a living. After seeing the benefits brought by the farming techniques introduced by the Chinese team, he convinced his family and relatives to settle in the farm and continued to drive for Wang Xuemin while learning to farm himself. Currently, Ibrahim’s family undertake the cultivation of a vast area of farmland with the techniques they learned.
The Chinese team in Warra Farm has also been screening for a rice breed suitable for the local condition and has high performance in terms of yields and resistance to pests. In 2017, the rice breed selected by Wang Xuemin and his team, named GAWAL R1 from the name of the company (Green Agricultural West Africa Ltd), was registered by the Nigerian agriculture authority. Compared to another rice breed, Faro 44, that was promoted locally by the authority, the yields of GAWAL R1 were higher by 30% on average. Currently, the Chinese company operates with an outgrower scheme. The company provides some initial seeds, farming equipment and technical support to farmers for them to grow seeds, and at the harvesting season, buy more seed back from the farmers to sell them in the market. The farmers get income from producing seed for the company, and they also grow rice as food and as commodities to sell. The company also let farmers near Warra Farm to use their land. Today, the company is in partnership with over 5000 farmers.
In 2012, the GAWA company opened another location near Abuja, capital of Nigeria. The Agriculture High-tech Abuja Industrial Park is a research and development base for the breed screening of rice, maize, cassava and vegetables such as peppers, which are indispensable in Nigerians’ diet. GAWA also plans to build a demonstration center in the industrial park to accelerate the promotion of good agricultural techniques and quality seeds to assist Nigeria in its pursuit of food autonomy. As rice production in Nigeria grew by 50% from 2012 to 2018, the process is well underway.
Ruoyu Chen, NYU Business and Political Economy
China-Africa Stories Contributor
Written from sources: