Birnin Kebbi — The Anchor Borrowers programme on dry season rice and wheat farming, launched a year ago by President Muhammadu Buhari in Kebbi State, has seen an increase in the number of millers and traders trooping to the state.
Come April this year, WACOT will commission its Rice Mill located on the Argungu-Sokoto road, about 55km from Birnin Kebbi and 90 kilometres from Sokoto. The mill was built on 10 hectares of land.
The N10 billion rice mill has a production capacity of 100,000 tonnes annually; silos for storing 18,000 tonnes of paddy and a warehouse for storing additional 12,000 tonnes of paddy. When operational, it is expected to generate direct and indirect employment for 3,500 people and its procurement will reach out to 50,000 farmers.
Expressing joy for getting a rice mill in Argungu, his hometown, a retired Justice of the Supreme Court and patron of Kebbi State Rice Farmers Association, Uthman Mohammed, said, "Before the coming of WACOT, the rice companies simply came here to purchase our rice and take it to mill elsewhere. We discussed with the emir that we would appreciate a company to be set up in Argungu for milling our rice, and we are ready to feed such mill.
"Now that WACOT is here, we have gone round to tell our farmers that we now have a rice mill. We urged them to grow more rice so that the mill will produce round the clock. When our people heard about it they were very excited. Many are happy that they no longer have to go seeking for jobs elsewhere because of the job opportunities created in Argungu. It is an interesting thing for me to be a rice farmer.
"I have over 50 hectares of rice field. I harvested over 1,000 bags of rice last year. People come on excursion to my farm to see what I have done there.
Last year, a bag of paddy was sold for N10,000 and because of that, most of the young men and farmers have gone into rice farming. If you go to the FADAMA area in Argungu, you will be amazed."
Justice Uthman also said: "When the federal government asked Governor Atiku Bagudu if they could get a million metric tons of rice from Kebbi last year, I told him we would achieve the target and we did. There is no reason for us to import what we can grow in our country and I am happy the farmers have taken up the challenge very seriously, particularly now that we have a rice mill in Argungu."
The Emir of Argungu, Alhaji Ismaila Muhammad Mera, also a rice farmer, expressed delight over the development of rice production in Kebbi State.
"For a very long time, Argungu has always been known for its rice farming. When you talk about agriculture here, it is rice first and other crops follow.
"The late emir of Argungu started the dry season farming in the state.
"It would be good for our farmers to have available markets for their produce and with WACOT, this feat can now be guaranteed. A 100kg bag of rice previously cost N3,000 to N4,000. People simply farmed to feed their families and sell what little they have left.
"However, for two years now, rice farming has become a profitable endeavour," he said.
He said these days, they see company directors closing their offices and coming into the farm business because there is a guaranteed market for the produce.
"This is because of the presence of companies like WACOT in the state.
In the future I see every able person in this country going back to the farm. I had a discussion with the governor on land distribution for farming where he told me to reserve land for the state for redistribution to those that might be rehabilitated from drug addiction and go into farming. This is happening because there now exists a conducive market for the farm produce.
"With WACOT's presence and its proposed plans for farming, I see a big change in our society soon," he said.
The general manager, WACOT Rice Limited, Mr Amit Gupta, while assuring on his company's commitment to rice production in the country, said the Argungu rice mill project was initiated in 2016 to actualize some of the federal government's economic objectives.
"We plan to complete it within 16 months and when completed, it would be bigger than any rice mill that have been set up in the country," he said.
It is the first rice mill to be conceptualized and executed with an expectation of being commissioned within the Buhari administration.
"Initially, we were faced with the challenges of getting the piece of land to set up the factory because of the type of soil required. We were also faced with the consideration of getting enough paddies to sustain our production and the need for a place that is economically viable. Kebbi is a remote location with no access to many contractors, as compared to Lagos and Abuja, for the building of our heavy machines and equipment. We were, however lucky to get partnership with a number of good engineering contractors.
"The government has been very supportive about the whole process. Our patron is the Emir of Argungu, he is extremely up and doing in mobilizing public opinion and giving us guidance on how to go about getting people and the resources needed.
"Like I said, we had operational challenges but we were able to overcome them, perhaps because of the dynamism of our management team," he said.
Expressing his optimism about the major role his company aims to play in the effort to boost rice production in the country, he said, "This country consumes an average of five million tons of rice per year. What we as a company are excited about is the fact that we already have farmers. We started the outgrowers in 2015. We have been working all along with over 5,000 farmers in Kebbi State.
"We trained about 5,000 farmers on good agricultural practices. We engaged them on multiple levels such as the field and demonstration farms. We also set up farmers' business school to teach them financial management, cost of production, and best ways of investing money.
"We have also worked with a lot of female-led organisations to create self-sustainable groups and make them economically viable."
On quality, Mr. Gupta said WACOT has the capacity to produce world class rice that could be compared with those produced in Thailand and India because it has the required machines, boilers and other equipment needed to produce high quality rice.
"We need to change the impression that Nigerian rice is inferior to Thai rice. Our rice has passed through food safety standards and control and we are set to meet our targets.
"We need 100,000 tons of paddy to produce 16,000 tons of finished rice per year. With the capacity of our equipment and the interactions built over the years with farmers, this would not be difficult for us to meet. The rice mill cost us N10 billion to set up. We are confident of our entry into the market," he said.
When fully operational, he said, WACOT would employ over 600 full time workers in the mill. In addition, there would be over 400 labourers. He said the company aims to also create about 3,500 indirect workers.
"The mill will have a parking lot, which is expected to attract mechanics, auto electricians, drivers, off loaders, vulcanisers, food sellers and others. Anyone who wants to make or sell polythene bag already has a market here. Our objective is to set up a self-sustaining factory with freedom that will give rise to other initiatives," he said.