Nigerians love eating rice at Christmas. But the prices of imported brands of rice have skyrocketed. Although some cheaper brands have recently emerged, scary reports about plastic rice being sold in some markets in parts of the country have dampened the people’s spirits, ANNA OKON writes
Among the popular videos circulating in the social media is one that features somebody boiling rice. The rice gets dry, starts burning and instead of turning to charcoal-like rice and other starch-based food, it turns to flames rising from the base of the pot to a high level.
This Christmas is unique in the sense that it is ‘recession Christmas.’ For the first time in about two decades, the prices of food items including rice have hit the roof.
From N7,000 for a 50kg bag that rice was sold in December 2015, it has risen to N22,000. Along with the hike also comes the increase in prices of associated condiments such as vegetable oil used in preparing stew. From N550 for 5kg of vegetable oil, it has risen to N3,500.
Unfortunately, while the prices of food items have gone up, the incomes of most Nigerians have remained the same; and in some cases, they have been slashed.
The year 2016 has been marked by job losses and company closures. More than 2,000 firms reportedly shut down between January and November while there have been over 400,000 job losses recorded across all sectors.
Purchasing power has gone down to the lowest level and it is at this critical time that cheap rice has gained a wide appeal among consumers.
A rice dealer in one of the markets in Lagos promotes two types of the popular staple. One sells for N22,000 for 50kg bag while the other has a low price tag of N9,000.
“The one for N9,000 does not have taste; if you cook it, it will swell up and fill the whole pot but it does not have taste. The only taste you can derive from it is from the stew you eat it with,” the eager seller tells the consumer who is already calculating how much gain she stands to make between N9,000 and N22, 000.
A housewife, Ogechi Mathew, takes one look at the N9,000 rice and swears she will never buy but does not forget to add that even as she will not buy, there are countless people who will rush for that rice, for crowd feeding during the Christmas celebrations, to entertain guests.
“As long as the stew is tasty, I am sure mamy Nigerians will not even know the difference,” she says.
Apart from the lack of taste, one shudders to think what could constitute a bag of 50kg foreign rice that sells for as low as N9,000 in an economy where the dollar exchange rate is N470.
Recently, there have been concerns about genetically modified rice. Videos have surfaced of people injecting plants with some sort of chemicals that make them grow faster and mature overnight.
They are also said to be injecting the rice plants with chemicals that make them retain their fresh and shiny look; and the scariest of all, the rumours of plastic pellets inserted into bags of rice by some merchants, to add volume and make profit.
While consumers have expressed fears about the situation, some experts have offered tips on how to detect the plastic rice. In one of the tips, consumers are asked to do a water test by putting the rice in the water and stirring it, if the rice floats on top of the water, then it is definitely plastic rice, but if stays down, it is real rice.
While discussing this theory with a rice dealer, Mr. Udonkwa Akang, he says it is not a proper method of identifying the plastic rice. “If rice stays inside the bag longer than necessary, you put the grains inside water, they are bound to float, especially the ones that have been exposed to moisture; so that is not a very reliable way of testing for plastic rice.
“I believe the regulatory agencies should deploy scientific methods for the verification. There are laboratories that should be used in carrying out such tests,” he said.
The rumours must have informed a recent ban by the government of Ebonyi State of the sale and consumption of foreign rice in the state.
The governor of the state, Mr. David Umahi, while on a visit to the Punch in Lagos, confirmed that the rumours had informed the ban, adding that although the ban was not permanent, it was to enable the state to verify the veracity of the rumours.
Speaking on behalf of the governor, the Commissioner for Information and State Orientation, Ebonyi State, Dr. Emma Onwe, said that while on one of his trips to Asia, he discovered that the type of rice consumed there was different from the type being imported into Africa.
He said, “On further inquiry, I was told that the rice that is consumed in Nigeria is preserved for a period of seven to 10 years and the aroma and taste of the rice come from the strong chemicals used in preserving it for such a long period of time.”
According to him, the Basmati rice that the Asians consume tastes and smells different from the one preserved and laced with chemicals to be imported into Nigeria and other African countries.
Also, the Lagos State Government recently partnered with the Kebbi State Government to produce rice which is sold at subsidised rate of N13,000 per 50 kg bag.
These initiatives and the ban on importation of rice through the land borders had led to surplus of rice in Cotonou, according to reports which say about N3bn rice destined for Nigerian markets had been trapped in Benin Republic because of the decision of the Customs to tighten its borders ahead of the ban which takes effect from January 2017.
The Comptroller General of Customs, Hameed Ali, a strong advocate of total ban on importation of foreign rice by the year 2017, disclosed that 99 per cent of rice imported into Nigeria was poisonous.
He said, “First, the smugglers go for expired rice overseas, especially from China. The Chinese won’t eat that in their country so our people go and get them re-bagged and ferry them here.
“Secondly, the bags of rice are preserved with dangerous chemicals and reagents and when the goods arrive in neighbouring ports of Cotonou and Lome, they warehouse them poorly in dirty, dilapidated and disused facilities with leaking roofs and poor ventilation as they await the best time to move into Nigeria with their illegal consignments.”
For the Director-General, Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mr. Muda Yusuf, the whole situation boils down to weak institutions.
He said, “We need to strengthen our institutions. Whether goods are imported or produced locally, they need to have quality control. We need to find out why our quality control institutions are not functioning and look for ways to make them function.”
The Acting Director-General, National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, Mrs. Yetunde Oni, said for the local rice, the agency had insisted on starting the quality control right from the farm where the rice was being planted.
“We have ensured that right from the outset; NAFDAC is a part of the farming. When you’re part of the farming, you will teach the farmers how to apply the pesticides; what to do at every particular point in time such that at the end of the day, you end up with the right product, not that we are waiting at the end to look at the quality of the products,” she said.