Food Crisis: Why Rejecting Food Importation Was Right for Nigeria

Published on 3rd June 2008

We never fail to criticize our politicians for their greed. By the same token, we must note the display of highly principled stand in the face of serious problem of rice scarcity not only in Africa but in the world in view of the flood in Myanmar and earthquake in China. Some of our politicians rejected 80 billion naira foreign rice importation contracts by which big hard money could be made, as usual. They saw beyond their noses, pockets and selfish interest but deeply into the root cause of food and fertilizer shortages at home.

What is even more surprising is that the cause under which this foreign cash could have been made is grave; under the pretence of preventing hunger in Nigeria. It could easily pass as sincere politicians concern for the masses, while fighting for their share of rice.Arguments will be made as to the advantage or the short sightedness of spending such a huge amount on the importation of rice. In this case, many of us will pitch our tent with those politicians who think the money could be put to better use to prepare for famine.

Recently, rice scarcity and dwindling staple food supply because of competing needs for bio-fuel has grabbed world attention. More people are eating rice as corn is diverted for ethanol. Nigeria has followed the rest of the world by inviting Brazilian technology to the local conversion of our food into ethanol.

The politicians who prefer to use the money to develop agriculture and increase rice production at home, must be commended. A few, mindful of presidential might, are already backtracking on their earlier stand against throwing 80 billion to foreign rice importation as counter productive. Nigeria already spend N32 billion on rice, plus more on food that can be grown at home.

We have to redevelop our taste buds to home grown food. Asians have different types of rice used for different purposes just as we use different types of yams for different types of food. There are, pounded yam, yam flour can be turned into yamballs, yam can be grated and made into ojojo, into amola etc. Why not into grains for bread?

The same is true about Asians when it comes to rice. There are long grain, short grain, broken rice, hard and soft rice. We also have different types in Nigeria but we desire nothing except long grain rice. Since some of these types may not be suitable for our weather, there is African Rice Research Center in Benin that has not been able to produce rice to our taste and in great quantities for about nine years.

The abandonment of our local rice is nothing short of that mentality of desiring the best while producing the worst. Since we think what we produce at home is not good enough, we will continue to pay through our nose in hard currencies for what we think is the best. Fortunately, some people in Lagos now favor ofada rice. It has become designer rice served at parties. So our worst rice has been elevated past the best rice to designer rice.

Wheat is a good example of transferred taste planted in many developing countries from former colonial powers. They grow wheat in abundance and turn it into bread just as we turn beans into akara or moinmoin. Throughout the world these days, bread has been turned into staple food. In Nigeria, we have rejected “mixed bread” if cassava is added to it. We prefer “pure bread”. Some effort made to incorporate cassava flour into our bakery has met some resistance with a disappointing effect on our goal to encourage the use and production of cassava locally. So we have farmers who can not find bakers as buyers.

At the same time we cry about the high cost of imported wheat. Even if wheat is grown locally in Nigeria, we will still need more from overseas. Nigerians are not alone in their acquired taste of highly researched products for consumption. That is why bleached flour is popular everywhere in the world for bread. As we now find out that these refined flour is not good for our health and that it contributes to triglyceride in our body leading to stroke and heart attack, many people are switching to “unpalatable” whole wheat bread.

In most of the so called developed world, people are turning away from the bleached flour that we still prefer in Nigeria. Any attempt to add whole grain cassava is being resisted. So we may wonder why we can not turn cassava grain into bread instead of wheat. It has to do with acquired taste. Just like Jamaican coco bread without coco.

Eighty billion naira can be used to employ our graduates to develop interest in agriculture that goes from farming to product suitability. Some of us do not know why we hate bread with palm wine taste, a substitute for yeast import. Adding more sugar for taste may help. But that creates another problem because despite the fact that we have sugarcane to produce refined sugar, N120 billion naira was spent in the importation of sugar going by a data from Ministry of Agriculture.

Food is not just what we sow and cultivate; it is also marketing to the eyes and to the taste buds. It takes some research, testing in some focus groups and receptive audience that are not looking beyond our shores for anything foreign to show class. It is very popular amongst Nigerians and our American blacks cousins. Their restaurants spring up in our neighborhoods to show class in Nigeria and in United States.

If we can think about how many ways we can boil, roast, fry and cut plantain; we can also do the same with our cassava and our rice for tuwo. We surely need to do some work to make it appealing to our masses. It is not their fault if we refuse to do our homework in making and packing our food attractively to our people. United States has made sandwich into multibillion dollar industries turning McDonalds, Wendy and Burger King into food chain houses for the young and not so young.

Fortunately, we now have our Mr. Biggs, Sweet Sensation and Bukateria among others but many are still beyond the sphere of the poor because food is relatively expensive in Nigeria.

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