Pa Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s life president who in recent times has been quoted on virtually every topic under the sun, is reported to have said that Christmas in Africa is just like World Rice Day.
He may not be far from the truth (assuming he actually made the statement). In Nigeria, it could be said that Christmas without rice is no Christmas. Christmas, the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, has over the years come to share a bond with rice, a cereal grain known to be the most widely consumed staple food for a large part of the world’s human population. How and when this relationship began is a matter of conjecture.
Suffice it to say that rice is the keyword on everyone’s lips during Christmas in Nigeria – governments across the country distribute bags of rice to civil servants within their domain, companies share bags of rice to their staff, richer families give out rice to poorer ones, cooperative societies arrange for interested members to buy bags of rice at cheaper rates, and so on.
This Christmas, however, the discussion around rice has reached fever pitch as the commodity has gone beyond the reach of the masses, prompting many state governments to intervene.
Time was when rice seemed like a luxury in most Nigerian homes. Back then, rice was the special meal on Sundays for those who could afford it. For others, it was a delicacy specially made during festivities such as Christmas, New Year, Easter, birthdays, weddings, etc.
Those days may be back as rising cost of rice has pushed the commodity beyond the reach of many families. With the national minimum wage static at N18,000, and with the prices of other commodities skyrocketing, the families that can comfortably afford a bag of rice this season is few and far between. A 50kg bag of rice today costs between N18,000 and N23,000, as against N8,000-10,000 last year’s Christmas. This high price is also putting pressure on richer folks who ordinarily would want to give out rice as Christmas gifts.
Ebayeta Usifoh, a Lagos-based widow and mother of three, says her hope of eating rice today rests solely on her neighbours who may be kind enough to play the Good Samaritan role to her and her three children, otherwise it would end up a pipedream for her and her family.
“I work in a motor park where they pay me N20,000 monthly, and you know the month is not ending yet. Even at the end of the month I am not going to have anything from my salary because I borrowed some money to pay the school fees of one of my twin daughters who is sitting for WAEC (West African Examination Council). The other one is crying now that she cannot be left at home while her sister is in school,” Usifo says.
“My husband died two years ago in Edo State, so I had to relocate to Lagos when life became too unbearable for me and the children. My relatives are here in Lagos, but many of them are out of job at the moment. So, rice is not on my mind this Christmas because it is just too expensive. I know somehow God will provide for us, but I cannot insist it must be rice. Things have been very tough for me; I nearly cried myself to death last week,” she tells BDSUNDAY.
Iliya Idris Abdul, a pastor with the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), says he solicited the help of some of his financially-stable friends to see if they can provide rice for his members this Christmas.
“Recession is really biting hard and the price of rice has shot up to the extent that ordinary people cannot afford it. So, I begged the people who I know can come to our aid to provide us with rice for our members. I told them I don’t need money, just give me rice for my members – although we are not asking just about anybody around. We are praying and trusting God to guide us,” he says.
Local rice production gets a boost
As it is often said, necessity is the mother of invention. Amid rising cost of imported rice occasioned by foreign exchange scarcity and other issues, many states of the federation took local rice production within their domain a notch higher. This move has made available more affordable brands of rice to many Nigerians who otherwise would have gone without rice this Christmas.
A list of made-in-Nigeria rice found on Nairaland, Nigeria’s online beer parlour, includes UMZA Rice (Kano State), Mas Rice (Gombe State), Mama Happy Rice (Niger State), Labana Rice (Kebbi State), Ebonyi Rice (Ebonyi State), Anambra Rice (Anambra State), Olam Rice (Nasarawa State), Ofada Rice, (Ogun State), and Igbemo Rice (Ekiti State). And there is LAKE rice, a result of a collaboration between Lagos and Kebbi States.
BDSUNDAY research shows that three grades of Ebonyi rice are available at the different rates. The lowest grade, R8, sells for N5,000 per bushel and N10,000 per 50kg bag; the higher grade, 306, sells for N7,000 per bushel and N14,000 per 50kg bag; while the highest grade, Mass, sells for N8,000 per bushel and N16,000 per 50kg bag.
Just last Wednesday, Governor Akinwunmi Ambode of Lagos State and his Kebbi State counterpart, Atiku Bagudu, launched the Lagos-Kebbi Rice, christened LAKE rice, saying the effort was to ensure food security as well as showcase the ability of Nigeria to become a producing nation.
“LAKE Rice is of good quality. The major difference between LAKE Rice and the ones imported is that the imported has a minimum of five to six years storage lifespan, but LAKE Rice is fresh,” Ambode said at the launch held at Lagos House in Ikeja.
A price breakdown given by the governor shows that a 50kg bag of LAKE Rice will sell for N12,000, a 25kg bag for N6,000, and a 10kg bag for N2,500.
To ensure that the available stock goes round, Ambode said no individual would be allowed to purchase more than a bag.
But many Nigerians are asking whether these gestures will be sustained hereafter or whether they are just for Christmas’ sake and to score cheap political goal.
Peter Olukaja, a medical doctor, does not understand the craze for rice during Christmas to the utter disregard of other staple foods.
“No family will finish a bag of rice during Christmas and the highest a person can do is to eat rice throughout Christmas Day. So, this is not enough reason to clamour for rice during Christmas,” Olukaja says.
“By right, people should go for food items they hardly eat all through the year to reflect Christmas as a special occasion that demands special meal and not the usual rice. No matter her claim of offering special delicacy every Christmas, my wife ends up cooking rice and it still tastes the same,” he adds.
For Seun Ononuga, a business executive, people can do without rice this Christmas. Those who cannot afford rice should eat what they have, he says.
“Eat yam, plantain, millet or other food items that are readily available. It is because of the preference for rice over our traditional food items that unscrupulous importers are thriving, bringing in things like plastic rice,” says Ononuga.
“Our soil is rich enough to grow other items such as potatoes, plantain, yam, sorghum, among others. Churches should also encourage the faithful to eat whatever they can afford this Christmas. It must not be rice,” he says.
The RCCG pastor, Abdul, says there is nowhere in the Bible where Christmas was even mentioned not to talk of the kind of food to eat, and admonished Christians to be content with whatever food God makes available to them.
“There is even a strong argument on whether Christians should celebrate Christmas or not because of its controversial background. The eating of rice which has now become part of the ritual of Christmas cannot be traced to any particular scripture. I think it is just part of our culture to celibate festivals like Christmas with food everyone is excited about,” he says.
“We generally love rice as Africans, and that is why when you go to parties in Nigeria you see even rich people who can afford hundreds of bags of rice suddenly lose patience when fried or jollof rice is being served. There is just that mystery between rice and African celebration of Christmas,” he adds.
Sarah Okenwa, a marketing executive, does not share the excitement people have of rice as a perfect gift idea for Christmas.
“Rice is bulky, and before now it was not all that expensive. I think Christmas gift should be items that reflect love, the regard the givers have for the receivers, and must not necessarily be rice. Has anyone offered yam or plantain as Christmas gifts and they were rejected by the receivers?” she queries.
But experts say the need to feed a larger population and the fact that rice is fairly easy to prepare and can be prepared in a variety of ways may be among the reasons why it is in high demand among Nigerians, especially during festivities. Rice can be prepared as plain boiled rice eaten with tomatoes stew or other types of sauce or soup, fried rice, jollof rice, coconut rice, tuwo Shinkafa, Masa, Kunun Gyada, among others.
Anike Oyemade, a senior nutritionist at a Lagos State-owned medical facility, notes that rice is a sought-after staple food even at Christmas because it is easy to cook, easy to digest, and can be eaten by anyone no matter the medical condition. It does not contain gluten and so is suitable for people on a gluten-free diet.
“Even the sick, elderly and babies can digest this grain very well if cooked. Even people who are allergic to lots of other foods can eat rice. Besides, rice provides 21 percent of global human per capita energy and 15 percent of per capita protein. It is low in fat and protein, compared with other cereal grains,” says Medwell Journals report on ‘Demand Analysis for Rice in Nigeria’.
“Recent studies by the modern nutritionists have compared the easily digestible organic rice protein, a highly digestible and non-allergenic protein to mother’s breast milk in the aspect of its nutritious quality and also for the high quantity of amino acid that is common in both rice protein and breast milk. Rice also provides minerals, vitamins and fiber, although all constituents except carbohydrates are reduced by milling,” says the report.
Brisk business for unscrupulous elements?
Some unscrupulous businesspeople seem to be cashing in on the high demand for rice across the world to experiment with the idea of artificial manufacture of rice, resulting in what is now known as plastic rice. Though controversy still surrounds this issue, China, known to be the world’s largest producer of rice with a harvest of more than 200 million tonnes a year, is a prime suspect in this regard.
Several months ago the news of the existence of plastic rice went viral on social media. Videos were shared showing synthetic materials being fed into a machine to produce what looked like grains of rice.
Messages were broadcast and rebroadcast on Whatsapp for cooks and consumers to be cautious. Quoting The Korea Times, one of the messages said not only does rice from China contain pesticides used in Chinese agriculture, but rice can also be manufactured artificially.
“The potato starch is mixed with plastic (synthetic resin, for example) and then takes the form of a grain of rice. The grains are then steamed with a typical rice flavor. Doctors sound the alarm against the consumption of this artificial product: three solid portions apparently contain as much plastic as a small plastic bag. An alarming fact!” it said.
Even with these revelations, there were doubts in the minds of many as to whether plastic rice truly existed. Someone even asked whether it was easier and cheaper to manufacture rice artificially than to cultivate and harvest it – a question whose answer is as clear as daylight.
But these doubts were dispelled last Tuesday when Mohammed Haruna, Customs Area Controller in charge of the Federal Operations Unit (FOU) Ikeja, announced that the unit intercepted 102 bags of plastic rice branded “Beat Tomato Rice” with no date of manufacture which, he said, were stored for distribution as Christmas gifts for the public. The plastic rice, he said, was intercepted by officers of the unit along Ikeja area on Monday, adding that a suspect was arrested in connection with the seizure.
“Before now, I thought it was a rumour that the plastic rice is all over the country but with this seizure, I have been totally convinced that such rice exists. We have done the preliminary analysis on the plastic rice. After boiling, it was sticky and only God knows what would have happened if people consumed it,” said Haruna, advising “economic saboteurs who see yuletide season as a peak period for nefarious acts to desist from such illegal business”.
However, Isaac Adewole, minister of health, has debunked the claim that the bags of rice seized by Customs were plastic rice. This does not however, mean that the plastic rice does not exist.
How to identify plastic rice
In order to help people determine whether the rice they are eating is natural or stuffed with plastic, some experts came up with four simple tricks which have also gone viral on social media. They are the water test, the fire test, the mortar and pestle test, and the mold test. They are presented below as culled from Whatsapp messages.
The water test
Pour a tablespoon of raw rice into a glass filled with cold water and mix vigorously. If the rice falls to the bottom of the glass, everything is fine. If on the contrary it floats on the surface, be vigilant, because it surely contains plastic!
The fire test
Using a lighter and a match, burn a handful of rice. If it catches fire and smells of burnt plastic, you know what to do! Do not eat it!
The mortar and pestle test
When molding a few grains of rice with a mortar and pestle, the powder should be quite white. For artificial rice, you will notice a yellow discoloration instead.
The mold test
If you want to be sure that you do not risk anything with your cooked rice, put a small amount into a tupperware and leave it in a warm place. In a few days, mold will have to appear, otherwise it is that your rice is artificial.
CHUKS OLUIGBO, OBINNA EMELIKE, MABEL DIMMA & NATHANIEL AKHIGBE