Making more with less: Nigeria's productivity problem
A drone inspecting a farm.  Source: Jared Brashier via Unsplash

Want to eliminate poverty in Nigeria? Increasing the yields of smallholder farmers might be a good place to start. 

Smallholder farmers are those who plant on small plots of land - approximately 0.5 hectares - with the help of family and friends. Mostly for subsistence purposes. 

By some estimates, these farmers make up around 80% of the total number of farmers in Nigeria. 

In other words, smallholder farmers are the nucleus of the Nigerian agricultural sector.

Let us look at the bigger picture. 

According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), agriculture accounts for around half of employment and over 25% of GDP. 

With these contributions from farmers, they still suffer from poverty. A survey of smallholder farmers carried out by the CGAP (Consultative Group to Assist the Poor), showed that only 27% of the farmers live above the poverty line ($2.50 daily).

More than half live on about $1.25 to $2.50 a day while 25%, who are extremely poor, live on less than $1.25. 

Despite the large amount of activity we see through employment and GDP contributions, why is there so much poverty in the sector?

Low productivity. 

Essentially, the energy being spent is not producing enough value or output. Wages, and production, are not matching up with the amount of labour (farmers) and land used in the sector.

Let's look at crop production which makes up about 90% of Nigeria's agriculture sector. 

According to the World Bank, Nigeria has two times more agricultural landmass than Ethiopia. Yet, our cereal production is only 10% higher than Ethiopia's. Not making efficient use of our land and labour means that over time, as labour increases, output will not rise fast enough. 

Since 2007, Ghana and Ethiopia's food production has risen by over 50%. Nigeria, on the other hand, has seen its production grow by only 25%. 

If our population continues to grow, and more farmers enter into the agriculture sector, this low productivity will continue to keep wages and output low over time.  



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Why is productivity so low?

One cause of low productivity is the scale of the farmlands. Farmers plant in little portions, so their harvests and revenues remain small. As a result, there is no income to expand, and so it's a continual cycle of low yields and low income.

Even when these farmers decide to source for funds to expand their farms, formal financial institutions are out of reach. 

The CGAP survey also shows that only 3 in 10 smallholder farmers are financially included, which limits the possibility of sourcing funds from banks. 

Another reason for our low productivity is the low use of technology, machinery, and other soil inputs like fertilisers. 

Nigeria uses an average of 5.4kg of fertiliser per hectare of arable land. Compared to Ghana, which employs about 20kg while Ethiopia uses 14kg. Besides, Nigerian farmers are also guilty of mismatching soil types and fertilisers. 

These challenges show that farming is beyond putting seeds in the ground and waiting for the plant to sprout. For farming to be successful, we need quality seeds, good soil, adequate irrigation, fertiliser and a favourable climate. 

This is how Nigeria, with the same amount of land and labour, can create a lot more value and farmers earn higher wages. 

We can take lessons from Ethiopia. The East African country grew by 10% every year between 2004 and 2014. How? It prioritised agriculture as an engine for growth, by specifically focusing on the fast-paced adoption of new technologies in the sector.



What we can learn from Ethiopia

Ethiopia's secret is precision agriculture

This is the use of data-based technologies to provide optimised management of inputs according to actual crop needs.

Each plant gets the right amount of water, sunlight, fertiliser and soil moisture needed for it to generate maximum harvest.

For instance, a farmer who applies precision agriculture does not use more seeds than necessary. Such a farmer does not apply fertiliser on the farms only for the rains to wash them away - because she is aware of the weather forecast, so ultimately saves resources - time, effort and materials. 



How does this work?

The idea is producing more with the smallest amount of inputs and ensuring a high level of productivity. 

Precision agriculture combines meteorological - weather information, soil taxonomy, information on pests and diseases. The technique goes as far as determining the future yield of a crop.  

The instruments for gathering this information range from drones to various types of sensors erected on the farms, which acquire, process and analyse the data. 

For instance, computer vision allows a drone camera to infer that a cocoa tree has the 'Black Pod disease' by noticing dark brown spots on the pods during routine checks on the farm. 

At this point, you're probably thinking this sounds like a stretch for farmers who barely live on $1.25 a day.

Yewande Kazeem, the founder of Wandieville media - an agricultural media company, shares this sentiment. "Corporate farmers can afford to do that, but smallholder farmers can't afford that because it's not affordable for them, and it doesn't make business sense. Only if the government or a third party or an agribusiness is coming to play - like a commercial large scale farmer," she said.

That's what Ethiopia did. The government stepped in. 



Climate technology in Kenya is improving incomes

Source: CCAFS via Flickr



Ethiopia's technology projects

Towards engineering growth in the agricultural sector, Ethiopia launched the Agricultural Transformation Agenda (ATA), which is an integration of the Agro-Meteorology, 8028 Farmer Hotline, AgriHub, EthioSIS, and other projects. 

The Agro-Meteorology Project interprets climate forecasts provided by the National Meteorology Agency to help farmers make better decisions. 

Under this project, the government installed 50 Automatic Weather Stations (AWS) which record weather data remotely. The data is then interpreted and communicated to the farmers via SMS.

This project ensures that farmers make better planting, irrigation and fertiliser decisions based on the weather.

EthioSIS is another platform introduced by the Ethiopian government. It offers comprehensive soil mapping and assessments for farmers and advises farmers on the type of fertiliser to use as a result of the soil composition. 

Before this intervention, farmers used only two types of fertilisers. However, from this project, twelve types of fertilisers have been introduced based on the soil compositions. Farmers receive information on the type of soil they are planting on and the recommended type of fertiliser to use. 

Given that Ethiopia has a mobile broadband penetration of 16% and 4G penetration of 1%, this posed a challenge for the farmers as they may have difficulty accessing this information live; therefore the government provided the 8028 Farmer Hotline.

This is a toll-free Interactive Voice Response and SMS platform which provides farmers with real-time agronomic information such as the weather condition and forecast obtained from the AWS or the Ethiopian Soil Information System (EthioSIS). 

Seeing how Ethiopia's agricultural sector has has made progress, the Nigeria Incentive-Based Risk Sharing System for Agricultural Lending Plc. (NIRSAL) - a body set up to finance and reduce credit risk in the Nigerian agricultural sector - is currently working on implementing some form of precision agriculture. 

To this end, the organisation has signed an MoU with the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NiMet) to produce cropping calendars in line with the weather to inform the farmers in its Agri Geo Coops program. 

Nigerian insurance companies are also joining the fray. 

"Now we have a lot of agriculture insurance companies coming to play, and they work with clusters of farmers to help them map the GPS coordinates of their farm. They also advise the farmers on how to grow, what their weather pattern is, give them the data, so it helps them to know the specific time to plant." Yewande said.

However, it's one thing to provide information to farmers, and it's another thing to use the information accurately. 


It always boils down to education

Literacy is a hindrance to the success of these solutions in Nigeria. According to the survey by CGAP, about 30% of farmers are illiterate while another 30% have primary school or informal education. The government must educate farmers on how to adopt some of these technologies; private organisations can also follow suit. 

"I also think the private sectors, the off-takers who invest in these local communities also have a role to play. They can afford it and can also educate the farmers planting patterns and behaviours and show them on their demo farms because most of them have demo farms" said Yewande. 

The success of precision farming is dependent on how the data given to the farmers can be interpreted to make critical farming decisions and the structure in place to achieve this. 

Although Nigeria is yet to integrate precision agriculture in its processes fully, it has taken preparatory steps towards adopting it. The partnerships made by the NIRSAL and the adoption of digital monitoring tools by insurance companies is a step in the right direction. 

We also have private firms offering solutions. Zenvus provides tailored advice to farmers on what, when and how to plant.

Tomato Jos has shown that a boost in productivity is possible. They have successfully generated over seven times above national yield average in its tomato production, by educating and empowering smallholder farmers. Evidence that, given the right information, farmers can produce more with the same amount of hours and land. 

That level of efficiency is key to earning higher incomes and escaping poverty.


You can follow this writer (@GbemiAlonge)

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Gbemisola Alonge

Gbemisola Alonge

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