Wasting the Land: Finding human stories behind Nigeria’s huge food import

By Kunle Falayi

I have worked as a journalist in Lagos Nigeria for the last seven years but it took an impactAfrica grant for me to realise how stressful and important it is to really dig up the human stories behind data and numbers.

First of all, a project that goes to the root of the massive importation of food in Nigeria vis-à-vis the huge land resources left uncultivated was bound to encounter a number of problems.

There was the fact that government officials who should have information had no idea how much land was uncultivated in the country.

Secondly, government officials tend to deliberately underestimate problems, especially when it boils down to the ineffectiveness of their policies. It was with these in mind that our team set out to produce the Wasting the Land data project, by looking at the problem of massive importation of food in the country from different angles with the use of data.

World’s top rice consuming nations

We were aware that no matter how much figures our investigation on the subject would bring up, we must not lose sight of the human elements of it all, which would resonate with both local people affected and policy makers at the seat of power.

This is why the first thing we did was to narrow our focus to the most popular food item in Nigeria — rice. Nigeria is actually the 11th highest consumer and the 2nd highest importer of rice globally. Those two positions created the basis for this project. The question then was why import this much rice when Nigeria has some of the largest uncultivated land in sub-Saharan Africa?

For each 50-kilogramme bag of rice which make it across the Nigerian border, mostly through smuggling, a local farmer somewhere in the country is becoming poorer.

Government figures for the size of the uncultivated land mass in Nigeria were not adding up, probably because an in-depth study of this has not been done. Most of the Federal Government figures showed the incoherence in cross-agency information. The data we were getting on the size of the uncultivated land in the country were just not adding up considering the current data which showed that 77.7 per cent of the country’s total land mass (92 million hectares) is cultivated or reserved. 77.7 per cent translates to 72 million hectares which means that the country has 38 million hectares left uncultivated so far. When we put this figure in perspective, we realised that it was as large as the whole of Zimbabwe and larger than Malaysia, Japan and Benin Republic.

It was a lesson to note that in my country, government officials give up figures at different times depending on what they want you to believe. The trouble is when someone with a genuine intension starts to look for the verifiable data to corroborate such figures, it becomes a problem.

Anyway, we needed to hear the stories of local farmers and challenges that make it impossible for them to put wasting lands to use. This part of our project was eye-opening as the local farmers painted different gloomy pictures of the reality on the ground at a time the government was simply banking on large companies producing and exporting to other African countries to realise make its “rice revolution” successful. The “rice revolution” is a policy recently put in place to reduce rice importation and ensure self-sufficiency in the country through a deliberate government assistance to producers. For the local farmers, the lack of machinery to till the large expanse of land all around the country put a cog in the wheel of their chance to take advantage of this.

Radio programme

In Nigeria, the Federal Government has banned the importation of rice, but this has created a huge smuggling business because of the price difference between imported rice and locally produced rice. Imported rice are way cheaper. Therefore, there was no way #WastingtheLand was going to be successful without visiting the borders where the rice get into the country on a daily basis. The most notorious of the border in Nigeria is the Idiroko Benin-Nigeria border where we met a few smugglers who gave an inside view of the inner workings of the smuggling racket that bring in billions of dollars-worth of rice into the country yearly.

We also met the head of the Nigeria Customs Service manning the border who spoke of the violence and attacks on his men by rice smugglers.

Ironically, three weeks after our publication, some rice smugglers waylaid his convoy on the way to the border one morning, destroying his vehicles. He only barely escaped being lynched. Such is the seriousness of the rice smuggling business in Nigeria.

How the project attracted attention

One of the most successful part of this project and the publications that came from it is video. Our Facebook videos and animation were particularly successful. Within 48 hours of uploading them, each attracted at least 10,000 views each, which was a record for Punch Newspaper.

But the most exciting part of this project so far was shooting our aerial footage. The aerial footage was aimed at showing a portion of a large expanse of uncultivated land. This was done to give a sense of the huge resources going to waste in the country.

Also, the initial design of the project was to have a radio programme which would be recorded in a few languages so that local readers who miss the publication can be part of the discussion. However, this was changed when it became clear that a programme local languages would only serve those within the locality where they are spoken. So, we settled for pidgin English, which for most part of Nigeria has become sort lingua franca for both the educated and less educated people. This was aired in two radio stations in Benin, Edo State in the south-south and Abeokuta, Ogun State in the south-west of the country.

If you ask me if this was a successful project, I would say yes even if Punch Newspaper did not get 1 million hits on the stories we published on the project. Each element of the project was a catalyst for various discussions on the country’s wasting resources. The most satisfying was a few dozen of news sites across the country picked up the publications, expanding their reach in the process.

The partners

Code for Africa (CfAfrica) is the custodian of impactAFRICA and is the continent’s largest independent open data and civic technology initiative. It operates as a federation of autonomous country-based digital innovation organisations that support ‘citizen labs’ in five countries and major projects in a further 15 countries. CfAfrica runs Africa’s OpenGov Fellowships and also embeds innovation fellows into newsrooms and social justice organisations to help liberate data of public interest, or to build tools that help empower citizens. In addition to fellowships and CitizenLabs, CfAfrica runs the $1 million per year innovateAFRICA fund and the $500,000 per year impactAFRICA fund, which both award seed grants to civic pioneers for experiments with everything from camera drones and environmental sensors, to encryption for whistleblowers and data-driven semantic analysis tools for investigative watchdogs. CfAfrica also curates continental resources such as the africanSPENDING portal of budget transparency resources, the openAFRICA data portal, thesourceAFRICAdocument repository and the connectedAFRICA transparency toolkit for tracking the often hidden social networks and economic interests in politics. CfAfrica is an initiative of the International Center for Journalists(ICFJ).

International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is at the forefront of the news revolution. Its programmes empower journalists and engage citizens with new technologies and best practices. ICFJ’s networks of reporters and media entrepreneurs are transforming the field. ICFJ believes that better journalism leads to better lives. Over the past 30 years, ICFJ has worked with more than 92,000 professional and citizen journalists and media managers from 180 countries. ICFJ work through strong local partners, such as Code for Africa, and a network of dedicated alumni. For more information, go to www.icfj.org.