Development of natural rubber will aid post Covid-19- RMRDC DG

In this interview with BINTA SHAMA, the Director-General of the Raw Materials Research and Development Council (RMRDC) Prof. Hussaini Doko Ibrahim, disclosed that rubber as one of the commodities that has sustained Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings would  generate more than N2 trillion annually, as it plays a great role in fighting against the spread of the Corona virus pandemic.

What is natural rubber and where does it grow?

Hevea brasiliensis which is commonly referred to as Natural Rubber (NR) is a term applied to a wide variety of elastic substances produced from over 500 plant species. However, 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 in 1895 from Brazil and by 1903 the first rubber estate was established in Sapele. Presently in Nigeria, the major rubber producing States is found 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, NR 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, NR 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% of natural rubber (NR) usage, making transportation the leading single sector of the major uses of rubber. Automobile tyres truck 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).

What is the status of rubber plantation in Nigeria?

Prior to the 60s, before the oil boom, rubber was one of the agricultural commodities that generated income for Nigeria. During this period, rubber was an internationally traded commodity as a major foreign exchange earner and contributor to the growth of the economy.  The cultivation of rubber provided bulk employment for the people of the then Mid-West now known as the Edo and Delta States.  However, NR plantation development in Nigeria has stagnated for the past 30 years, while the ratio of small holdings to large estates plantations is 3:1.  Production data reveal three distinct output periods: 1966 – 79, 1980 – 87, and 1988 – 96 with mean annual production of 61,000; 39,000 and 98,000 metric tonnes respectively.

Are there any challenges of natural rubber production in Nigeria?
Of course yes, presently, only about 40% of Nigeria 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 NR 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 farmer’s 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.  Other very important challenges of the sector include lack of medium and long term facilities and high cost of credit to finance private plantations.

What of the Presidential Initiative on Rubber Production, Utilisation 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 percent), State Government (30 percent), Local Government (5percent), private stakeholders and donor agencies (30 percent and 10 percent) respectively.

What do you think the federal government should do on rubber to foster post Covid- 19 Nigeria 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 NR processing increased the economic activities globally by more than 30% during the lockdown. RMRDC has identified it to be important in the production of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) among which are boots, gloves, etc.  

More importantly, the Federal Government should strive to bring back the big companies that have huge investments such as Michelin and Dunlop and also promote and encourage establishment of small scale industries for value addition across the entire value chain. It is also important that we mitigate the challenges facing the sector by promoting healthy reforms in the power sector, and abolish practices such as multiple taxation, etc., that discourages industrialists generally.

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 organisation 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. Presently, 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 Raw Materials Research and Development 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.

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