* Nigeria tries to end rice imports to save dollars
* Domestic production rising thanks to incentives
* But farmers unable to satisfy demand fully
* Growers complain help often not getting to right people
* Big investors hope government won’t repeat past mistakes
By Ulf Laessing
GADAU, Nigeria, March 9 (Reuters) - Nigerian Abdulhakim Mohammed has just graduated in architecture but, like many people ranging from unemployed locals to foreign investors and Africa’s richest man, he has decided the future lies in rice farming.
The reason is that domestic rice prices have more than doubled in the last two years due to an import ban and a dive in the Nigerian currency. At the same time, the government is subsidising tractors, mills and fertilisers as well as arranging cheaper loans to boost production - with considerable success.
And yet the drive to cut an annual food import bill of $20 billion has run into the kind of problems that have long bedevilled Nigeria’s efforts to build up an economy outside its dominant the oil industry.
Despite rice growing being a government priority, many farmers still work with their bare hands in fields lacking irrigation channels. Mills are often ramshackle while poor roads make getting the crop from the main growing areas in northern Nigeria to consumers in the south difficult and costly.
As a result, the industry has so far failed to fill a supply shortfall amounting to about 3 million tonnes of milled rice created by the import ban. In the commercial capital of Lagos, supermarkets mainly sell rice from India or Thailand.
Mohammed took up growing rice three years ago to help fund his university studies in the northern state of Bauchi. When he finished last year, he opted for a career in the fields around the town of Gadau, rather than in architecture.
“My advice to the youth is to join rice farming,” said Mohammed, who is expanding his own area from 1.5 to 2 hectares (3.7 to 5 acres) as well as working as a supervisor on a new farm that workers are preparing nearby.
“One bag of rice sells for 10,000 to 11,000 (naira). Two years ago I was selling for 4,500,” he told Reuters.
That makes a bag worth almost $25 at the exchange rate on the black market, where many Nigerians go due to restrictions and dollar shortages in the official banking system. In Bauchi state, hundreds of farmers are busy expanding, preparing new fields and drilling water holes for irrigation.
Farms have been opening across much of the country, lifting output of unmilled rice to 7.85 million tonnes in 2016 - a 17.4 percent jump from 2014, the National Bureau of Statistics told Reuters. That compares with just 4.54 million in 2010, before the campaign began.
Until 2015, Nigeria imported up to 4 million tonnes of rice annually, much of which was smuggled from the western neighbour Benin Republic. But this has fallen to about 700,000 tonnes as authorities now monitor the border, industry players say.
That lifted prices for the staple, along with currency curbs imposed to prop up the naira which has been hit by a fall in revenues from Nigeria’s oil exports.
Part of the rise is because farmers are passing on higher costs, saying the government subsidies are not enough. Importers have to pay a premium of 30 percent over the official rate to get dollars on the black market for buying the foreign-made machinery and fertilisers that growers need.
On top of this, farmers complain that endemic corruption means the government help doesn’t always reach the right people.
“Some people who got fertilisers were not even farmers. They sell it then,” said Mohammed Tafida, the local head of a rice farmers’ association, who is also expanding his own fields.
“Fertilisers are very expensive,” he told Reuters, standing by a new paddy field being prepared. “Our production costs are very high. You now pay workers 500 to 700 naira a day; before it was 200 naira.”
President Muhammadu Buhari has made fighting graft a priority since coming to power two years ago. But he has to work with Nigeria’s 36 states where officials executing the federal programmes often help out supporters or relatives.
Farmers and food producers can get subsidised loans well below the benchmark interest rate of 14 percent. But one processor of garri - another local staple, made from cassava - said he had waited six months to get his loan approved as banks are new to the farming business.
“In Nigeria talking is one thing and implementing plans another,” said Idris Salihu, another rice farmer in Bauchi. “We need more support.”
The rice boom has also drawn large scale investment from Africa’s richest man, Nigerian Aliko Dangote, and foreign firms to supply the huge market of 190 million people.
Dangote Group said last month it planned to launch a rice mill with a farm scheme which will produce 225,000 tonnes of parboiled, milled rice by the year-end.
Wacot Rice, part of Lagos-based food and farming conglomerate TGI, will open a rice mill next month with a capacity of 100,000 tonnes annually. It works with rice farmers on 15,000 hectares and plans to expand to 165,000 hectares within 10 years.
Abroad, Singapore-based Olam plans to increase its Nigerian rice farming to 6,000 hectares from 4,300 hectares “in a couple of years or so”, a spokesman said.
Nigeria hopes such large-scale investors will improve rice yields, measuring output per hectare. These are among the lowest in Africa as the market is dominated by relatively inefficient farmers running fields of two to five hectares.
The lack of good roads also means that rice from the north hardly reaches Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city. The government plans to increase capital spending by nearly a quarter in 2017 to fix pot-holed routes and help trade. However, a collapse in oil revenues due to low world prices has slowed many projects.
Nigerian growers also struggle to meet quality standards set by foreign agri-businesses, with consumers complaining about having to extract grit from the rice.
“I like better the taste of the local rice. The only problem is the stones in it,” said Samuel Ativ, 38, as he shopped in the busy Bauchi market. “If I am in hurry I prefer the foreign rice because there are no stones.”
Nigeria has imported 110 mills which remove grit in the process but most farmers still go to villagers to handle their rice with home-made machines.
Larger investors hope Nigeria will not repeat the mistakes of the past by losing interest in domestic food production if and when global oil prices pick up again, helping the naira to recover and making imports cheaper.
“Important is that they started the journey to become food self-sufficient,” said Rahul Savara, TGI Group Managing Director. “They are going on the right track, and the government has to continue the same policies it is doing now.”
$1 = 304.0000 naira additional reporting by Chijioke Ohuocha in Lagos; Editing by David Stamp