At Nigeria’s normally manic border post of Seme, Lasisi Fanu says business has all but ground to a halt.
He and other customs agents who help clear goods coming into Africa’s biggest economy from its smaller neighbour Benin say the long lines of trucks loaded with rice that used to jam the crossing have eased.
The slowdown is a result of import restrictions and tighter border policing as President Muhammad Buhari seeks to diversify the oil-dependent economy by boosting agriculture, especially rice production.
Two years ago, Buhari set 2018 as a target to end Nigeria’s status as the world’s second-largest importer of the grain after China and become self-sufficient.
He’s since overseen investments of almost $1 billion in farming and milling, virtually banned rice importers from buying foreign exchange, raised tariffs to as high as 60 percent and pushed the central bank to lend to farmers. Confident that his administration is making progress, he told rice growers this month that “our policies are working.”
But the numbers tell a different story: they suggest smuggling is rife because local producers are struggling to meet growing demand in Nigeria, whose 180 million people mix rice with tomatoes and spices to create jollof, practically a national dish.
Nigeria grew 3.7 million metric tons of rice in 2017, a 4 percent increase from a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the same time, imports rose 19 percent to 2.5 million tons, the USDA said.
Most imports are smuggled in from Benin, which despite a population of 11 million — barely 5 percent of Nigeria’s population — is now the world’s biggest buyer of rice from Thailand, the number two exporter globally.
Official shipments to Nigeria plummeted by more than 95 percent in the past four years, while those to Benin have surged, according to the Thai Rice Exporters Association.
“This is Nigeria and people are cutting corners,” said Fanu, the customs agent. “They bring in the rice through the many unofficial border crossings further north. The government knows it. It’s very difficult to police.”