BY NKECHI ISAAC,
Prof. Hussaini Doko Ibrahim is the director-general of the Raw Materials Research and Development Council (RMRDC). In this interview with NKECHI ISAAC, he x-rays how Nigeria moved from one of the leading producers of rubber in the 1990s to almost zero production in the past few years. He highlights various government interventions and how Nigeria can harness potentials in production to boost industrial growth in the post COVID-19 era. The excerpts.
What is natural rubber and where does it grow?
Natural rubber (NR) is a term applied to a wide variety of elastic substances produced from over 500 plant species. However, nearly all commercial rubbers of botanical origin are produced from Hevea brasiliensis which is commonly referred to as natural rubber. The Hevea tree is a member of the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae) and a native of the Amazon valley in South America. Hevea seedlings were introduced into Nigeria from Brazil.
The major rubber producing states in Nigeria is in the southern part of the country where high rainfall is experienced. It is commercially grown in Osun, Abia, Anambra, Bayelsa, Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Ondo, Edo, Ogun, Delta and Cross River states. However, advances in plant breeding techniques have given rise to the development of dwarf rubber trees with lower rainfall tolerance. As a result of assiduous research and development programmes, natural rubber tree is now grown in Kogi, Niger, Plateau, Taraba, Kaduna and Benue states. So, today, rubber plantation can be established in 24 out of 36 states of the federation.
What are the major uses of natural rubber?
Owing to its elasticity, resilience and toughness among other properties, natural rubber is the basic constituent of many products used in the transportation, industrial, consumer, hygienic, and medical sectors. Tyres and tyre products account for more than 50 per cent of natural rubber usage, making transportation the leading single sector of the major uses of rubber. Automobile truck tyres and bus tyres make up the prime outlet for natural rubber. Industrial products such as hoses and tubes, industrial lining, transmission and elevator belts, bridge bearings, and consumer products such as golf balls, erasers, footballs, footwear, and other apparels account for the remaining usage of rubber. Articles used in the medical and health sector, notably condoms, catheters, and surgical gloves as well as seismic materials (for instance, over 500 and 2,500 buildings are respectively fitted with seismic rubber bearings in China and Japan). Latex articles, typically condoms, gloves, threads, adhesives and moulded foams could be included in different categories in terms of end-use.
Rubber plant seeds are sources of rubber seed oil. Kernels (50 per cent – 60 per cent of the seed) contain 40 per cent – 50 per cent of a semidrying pale-yellow oil used in soap making, paints, varnishes and it is effective against houseflies and lice. Press cake or extracted meal can be cautiously used as fertilizer or feed for stock.
What are the challenges of natural rubber production in Nigeria?
The challenges are many. At present, only about 40 per cent of Nigerian rubber potential is being exploited. This is as a result of the abandonment and felling of trees, particularly by smallholders for seemingly more lucrative annual food crop production. The decline in natural rubber production is attributed to the marginalization of rubber as an economic and strategic crop due to the discovery of crude oil, the aftermath of the dissolution of the Natural Rubber Board that gave rise to transient glut in the mid-1990s and a drastic drop in the price of the commodity.
Others are the low yield due to uneconomic size of farmers’ holdings, old age of plantations leading to reduced stands per hectare, application of little or no agricultural inputs like fertilizer, unavailability of credit facilities and pesticides. Also, the gestation period for rubber, which is 7 years during which period the farmer earns no income from the trees, shortage and high cost of labour in many rubber producing areas where the industry is forced to compete for labour with the oil sector as well as scant federal and state governments’ attention to the sector. Other very important challenges of the sector include lack of medium and long-term facilities and high cost of credit to finance private plantations.
There is also high cost of inputs and processing facilities as a result of energy supply problems. In addition, there is dearth of good tappers as untrained tappers are killing the trees. The age of the trees must also be taken into consideration as most of the trees are over 30 years. Although, a presidential initiative was launched for production and utilization of rubber in Nigeria, not much has been achieved.
What of the presidential initiative on rubber production, utilization and export launched in 2006?
The presidential initiative on rubber was launched in 2006 to promote increased production and processing of rubber locally. Among the objectives of the initiative was to increase production through resuscitation of plantations, establishment of new plantation in order to expand the number of hectares under cultivation, promotion of yield improvement using improved clones and to address technological and socio- economic constraints militating against increased productivity, diversification of local use of rubber and to expand the market through provision of infrastructure and exploring more local and overseas market.
The initiative was jointly funded by the Federal Government of Nigeria (25 per cent), state government (30 per cent), local government (5 per cent), private stakeholders and donor agencies (30 and 10 per cent) respectively. The initiative planned to develop about 360,000 hectares of rubber plantation between 2007 and 2018. The programme suffered neglect as no provision was made for it in the 2007 budget till date for the continuation of the scheme. While the project was expected to be sustainable and last for at least 10 years, it has however been stopped since. This, coupled with other problems, led to the exit of Michelin and Dunlop from Nigeria
What do you think the Federal Government should do on rubber to foster post COVID- 19 Nigerian economic growth aspirations?
The need for us to see natural rubber as a very important post COVID-19 era option for development of non-oil sector in Nigeria is premised on several factors. One, the increasing price of rubber is encouraging rubber cultivation as an economically viable enterprise. The second is its multiple industrial applications. There are over 50 by-products of rubber, cutting across all major sectors. Even, in this COVID-19 pandemic era, natural rubber is playing a great role in fighting against the spread of the pandemic. While the world is praying that the pandemic era should pass quickly, the global natural rubber economy is experiencing a boost. It will not be out of place to say that natural rubber processing increased the economic activities globally by more than 30 per during the lockdown. RMRDC has identified it to be important in the production of personal protective equipment among which are boots, gloves, etc.
From all calculations, the development of natural rubber alone in Nigeria will generate more than 2 trillion naira on annual basis, both in terms of foreign exchange and local currencies. This is the type of development Nigeria requires in the post oil and post COVID-19 pandemic era.
What is your organization and other stakeholders planning on sustainable rubber development in Nigeria?
The council is mandated to collaborate with both private and government organizations to promote optimal development and industrial use of our local resources. We have been doing this since inception. As a matter of fact, the council has a competitiveness project that has provided roadmap for sustainable development of various strategic commodities. The competitiveness programme was approved by the Federal Executive Council in 2017. Rubber is one of the commodities that sustained Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings overtime and both the production and industrial base are established in Nigeria. At present, despite the challenges facing rubber development, Nigeria still has about 200,000 ha of rubber plantations that can be used as a springboard of post COVID-19 era economic growth in view of its industrial potentials and the presence of a number of viable processors in Nigeria. The council, at present, is reinvigorating and strengthening its collaboration with the Natural Rubber Producers, Processors and Marketers Association of Nigeria (NARPPMAN) to promote sustainable development of natural rubber through guaranteeing supply of natural rubber to user industries and promoting value-addition to the commodity through domestic processing. NARPPMAN has developed a ten year roadmap for the development of rubber in Nigeria.
The council has a programme under which it promotes production of agricultural commodities though the provision of improved planting materials. Thus, the council is also collaborating with other private and public sector organizations to produce improved planting materials for this initiative. I would like to highlight the fact that the council is currently promoting industrial utilization of locally produced natural rubber
Let me finally highlight the fact that the sustainable development of natural rubber in Nigeria will generate a lot of benefits for the nation. Internally generated revenue and foreign exchange generation will be more than 3 trillion on annual basis. However, there is need for deep seated collaboration among stakeholders for this laudable initiative to be actualized.