Agriculture, the first rung on the ladder of economic development, is regarded as a cornerstone of any economy. It serves as an asset which can contribute significantly to the overall well-being of a nation’s economy, and this makes it all the more lamentable that development of the domestic sector has suffered so much in the past few decades.
Too much has been said about Nigeria's food import bill, with some estimates reaching as high as ₦1 trillion per year. But with the value of the naira on a steady decline, dwindling foreign reserves, stagnant wages and rising food insecurity - especially in Northeastern Nigeria where about 4.5 million people are facing severe hunger and malnutrition, it has never been more urgent for us to look inward to meet our agricultural needs.
When oil money started flowing in the 1950s, interest in agriculture waned, reflected in restricted credit access for farmers. In 2011, lending to the sector constituted about 2 percent of total bank lending, quite poor for an economy where agriculture accounts for nearly a quarter of economic output and provides more than half of total employment. And problems exist beyond the asymmetric information that drives these low credit levels - we lose a significant portion of our annual harvest to poor transportation infrastructure, sub-standard farming practices and inadequate storage and processing facilities.
Living below our potential
Importing food is not a bad thing. Even the most developed economies import food to meet domestic demand. The concern is that the Nigerian agricultural sector is performing below its potential and this is not news. We import food that we can and probably should produce locally. Our nation has one of the lowest yield rates per hectare in the world for various agricultural commodities. Nigeria's agricultural potential is evident. The country has highly diversified agro-ecological conditions with total agricultural land of 80 million hectares (of which less than half has been utilised), surface water running into billions of cubic metres, and a large potential irrigable area. Ten percent of land is covered with forest, including large strands of tropical trees, veritable sources of timber. We are also endowed with rich fishery resources and potential for large-scale fish farming. The list goes on and on.
In light of these capabilities, it is pitiful that farming is still largely subsistent and rain-led despite the prominence of irrigation farming in most countries around the world. Our collective neglect of the sector has left us with a farming system characterised by traditional and inefficient farming methods.
This neglect is underscored by a look at the Malaysian farmers who came to Nigeria to learn the essentials of palm cultivation have now become exporters of palm products - counting Nigeria as one of their markets. The palm plantations of Eastern Nigeria were once a major source of foreign exchange that helped sustain the region, and now we import what we once sold. Our dependence on the importation of agricultural produce is dangerous not only because it drains our reserves but also because it makes us more vulnerable to external shocks and fluctuations. Skyrocketing prices of food, and other goods and services, combined with stagnant, and in some cases slashed wages, is putting a strain on household incomes.
Initiatives at work
In 2011, the Agricultural Transformation Agenda (ATA) was designed to refocus attention on a sector that had suffered extended neglect. The ATA brought some positive results: national food production reportedly grew by 21 million metric tonnes. However, the ATA was unable to deliver on some of its targets; including, creating 3.5 million jobs in the sector by 2015 and significantly reducing food imports.
In the past year, it became apparent that more work was needed to rebuild the sector so the Federal Government implemented a new policy called the Agricultural Promotional Policy (APP). The focus of this policy is to close the gap between demand and supply of food production and the government plans to do this by first addressing the current issues around input quality, financing, transportation and market access hampering the agriculture value chain.
The approach of the policy is to keep the private sector in the lead while the government takes on a regulatory role facilitating and providing support and infrastructure. The government, in consultation with its private partners, has already identified a pool of domestically focused crops that it would like to prioritise as it addresses these gaps.
We have also started to see some initiatives put forward by firms in the private sector. Haske and Williams and Dangote have invested heavily in commercial rice production. The much anticipated Dangote Rice is set to hit the market at a time when the average selling price of a bag of rice has gone beyond the reach of many Nigerians. The government has also announced a partnership with Brazil, itself a large rice producer, to assist with rice and soya bean production and agricultural technology transfer.
The Minister of Agriculture, Chief Ogbeh, strongly believes that these steps can serve as a platform for achieving lasting results. I believe so too. However, the fear is that today’s policies meet an identical fate as yesteryear's where the initial facade of progress gives way to policy reversals, abandonment, and further despair. Nigerians are well acquainted with this. And one must also be concerned about the absence of the infrastructure, institutions and systems that will make agriculture development sustainable. Low oil prices have forced us to take action to diversify the economy but it is imperative that we create sustainable systems in this process. I hope that Nigerians, once voted the most optimistic people in the world, remain optimistic through these difficult times. Optimism alone may not be enough but in the meantime, it can feed the soul.