Nigerians consume more than 5 million metric tons of rice every year, with a significant portion of its consumption needs sourced from imports. Rotimi Williams, an ambitious 35 year-old Nigerian entrepreneur and rice farmer, is on a quest to change that.
Williams, a former journalist, is the owner of Kereksuk Rice Farm, the second largest commercial rice farm in Nigeria by land size. His farm, which is situated in Nasarawa state in northern Nigeria, currently sits on 45,000 hectares and employs more than 600 natives of Nasarawa.
I recently caught up with the budding entrepreneur in Lagos, and had a brief chat with him where he recounted his journey and mused on how Nigeria can attain self-sufficiency in rice production in the near future.
What’s your educational and professional background?
I attended King’s College in Lagos. After attending secondary school at King’s College I proceeded to obtain my first degree at University of Aberdeen where I graduated with a degree in Economics. I also obtained a Master’s Degree in Economics from the same institution. My quest for more knowledge led me to enroll for yet another Master’s Degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London where I gained an MSc. in Finance and Development Studies.
Upon graduation, I landed a role as an analyst at the European Economics and Financial Centre in London. Afterwards, Euromoney Magazine employed me, where I covered the African space.
I would say that this is where my journey truly started.
Given your background as a journalist, what informed your decision to venture into rice farming?
While at Euromoney, I had the opportunity to travel around a few African countries. These trips exposed me to countries like Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa, Zambia and Ghana. A common thread amongst the aforementioned nations is agriculture. Agriculture is at the very core of these countries and this got me thinking. After a few more trips, I decided to move back to Nigeria and sink my teeth into the agricultural space. Nigeria remains the largest economy in Africa from both a GDP perspective and also the strength of the size of our population.
Upon my arrival back in Nigeria, I got a job at a premier bank where I was promised to sit on the agriculture desk – my hope was that I would gain enough knowledge of the Nigerian agricultural industry and develop myself from there.
Unfortunately, the agricultural desk at the bank never quite achieved its set goals. I pushed hard for the bank to adopt policies and gain inroads into the agricultural industry, but my attempts were somewhat frustrated. I sincerely feel that the bank wasn’t quite ready to launch fully into the agricultural space.
As my frustration grew, I decided to quit banking and planned to go it alone into agriculture. Frankly, my decision led to a challenging sojourn as attempts to raise funding with my partner proved difficult. We started a Structured Trade and Commodity Finance company. After a while I started consulting for small agriculture companies seeking to raise capital both locally and internationally.
You currently own the second largest rice farm in Nigeria with 45,000 hectares in Nasarawa, Nigeria. What’s the story behind your acquisition of such vast land, and what are some of the challenges you’ve encountered in farming in the volatile northern region?
Two years had past and we still had no funds, so I made an offer to the farm owner, that with a 50-50 split, I would develop the farm with both personal funds and external funding. He agreed and that’s how I became part owner of 17,296 hectares of farmland. Knowing that agriculture would become the integral area of focus in Nigeria, I was bullish and ramped up the land to 55,000 hectares. I later parted with my partner as a result of unaligned views and strategy. I maintained 45,000 hectares for myself and today we have started producing, with our quality paddy being sold to major milling companies in Nigeria. However, I must add the following, I often have people ask how I learned abut farming, as everyone thinks you need a special degree in agriculture to be a farmer, but I always tell them the truth, I learnt it all on Google. I downloaded every article I could find on rice production, consumed it and then practiced it in the fields.
Frankly, my experience working alongside indigenes [natives] of Nasarawa state has been exceptional. I have learnt over the years that if you approach people with respect even more so while one seeks to set up a business venture. Having a healthy sense of community makes all the difference in attaining one’s set objectives. I lean heavily on the wisdom and cultural approach of the indigenes to carry out farming on such a scale here in Nasarawa.
In the news today, there is a lot of talk about farmers clashing with Fulani herdsmen, but we think our approach has been successful. We created a scheme called the Farm Out Of Poverty initiative which I will talk about a bit more later. Under the FOOP, we are able to train approximately a hundred Fulani women in rice farming, at the same time, employing their men as our security and finally, feeding their castles from the rice straws after harvest. Today, we live in peace and all work towards the success of the farm.
What’s your fundamental objective in rice production?
In recent years there has been a concerted effort by the Federal Republic of Nigeria to adopt more wholesome agricultural reforms and policies. These initiatives are highly commendable as they seek to empower Nigerians to also engage and thrive in this industry. Quite frankly, with Nigeria’s swelling population we simply have to look inwards and increase our agricultural prowess as a nation. These initiatives have been further highlighted when we take a candid look at our importing structures. Nigeria imports a whole lot and the numbers reveal that this is not sustainable.
Kereksuk seeks to contribute its own quota to reduce the weight on our economy to keep importing rice – which is consumed in such high demand in our country.
Your farm, Kereksuk, is currently not running at optimization. Why is that?
Kereksuk’s land mass stands at 45,000 hectares; as such, we have been focusing on developing the land in phases – based on our modular plan we seek to reach full optimization by the year 2020. Our expansion plans require significant fund raising, too – the scale of our planned operations would explain this.
So how much rice are you producing annually?
We’re currently doing 8,000 metric tons a year, but we are embarking on an expansion program that’ll see us doubling our output next year.
Have you taken any steps to make your farm more environmentally friendly?
Kereksuk has taken a few initiatives to adopt environmentally friendly measures. For example, we apply organic fertilizers – fertilizers we gain quite seamlessly through our healthy relationship with the indigenes [natives] of this beautiful state. Furthermore, we feed straw from our rice to livestock and while I am not at liberty to divulge the details, we are actually working on a project that seeks to generate power from rice.
I see myself as a social entrepreneur. I appreciate engaging the collective through community involvement. This has actually inspired Kereksuk to set up a few initiatives.
Our pioneer initiative is the farm-out-of-poverty initiative. This strategic initiative targets secondary school children. The Nigerian secondary school system is evenly split into two halves – the Junior Secondary School (JSS) years and the Senior Secondary School (SSS) years. Each half lasts for three years. We focus primarily on the Senior Secondary School years by selecting ten students per SSS year to visit our farm.
While on the farm, the 30 students are exposed to the production and economics of rice farming. At the end of the year we set aside N50,000 ($160) per student per year. This accrues to N150,000 (approximately $500) at the end of the 3-year program per student. We ensure that this sum is matched by a like-minded cooperative organization and the cumulative amount of N300,000 ($1,000) goes towards paying fees at the tertiary education stage.
This program seeks to alleviate the burden of debt often associated with students and empowers the student through experience in a real-life work environment.
Kereksuk is confident that this initiative inspires and acts as an incentive to those at the lower education cadre to remain in school and aim for excellence in life.
The second phase of the FOOP involves the engagement of Fulani women in rice farming.
What reforms must government implement to ensure that Nigeria attains self-sufficient in rice production?
There is a lot of talk at the moment about rice production and self-sufficiency, but I believe that the government needs to look at its approach closely. The aim of the government is not only to create jobs, but create wealth and at the same time boost production. However, I believe that for jobs to be created, the notion is quite straightforward, create a plan and make funds available, however, for such development to be sustainable and for wealth to be created, there is much work yet to be done. For example, in rice production, simply growing paddy and selling at market price would not create the necessary wealth for the farmer, without appropriate value addition such as milling. However, because the government lays much emphasis on integrated rice mills and par-boiled rice, these small farmers are already priced out. So for the newly created job to be truly attractive and sustainable, government needs to start thinking about the value additions by the same farmers to enable them grow their operations organically.