It is not uncommon to see a photo of a hungry, malnourished child. The images are always striking while eerily similar; visibly malnourished, emaciated, disappearing frames with death in their eyes. This is the face of world hunger, and Nigeria has millions of these faces—victims of starvation and food insecurity.
Food security is the availability and adequate access at all times to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to maintain a healthy life. Why does food security matter? The answer is straightforward: people need to eat, else they will die. As straightforward as it sounds, 2.5 million Nigerian children under the age of five suffer from severe acute malnutrition every year, and 90,000 of them are expected to die this year from food insecurity in the North-East alone.
What is the problem?
Nigerians need more food than is currently produced and imported into the country. Food demand is higher than the food supply in Nigeria, and so we are unable to meet our food needs. Although agricultural productivity has risen, it has been outpaced by population growth, insecurity, and climate change. As food is expensive, scarce and inaccessible, we have a food security problem.
The biggest challenge to the food security issue is our population. The UN suggests there will be 440 million Nigerians by 2050, meaning over 200 million more mouths to feed. If food production does not increase at a similar pace, there will be more starving Nigerians. And right now, food scarcity is amplified by poverty. The average Nigerian household spends almost 75% of their income on food.
Another cause of food insecurity is climate change. Climate change leads to intense droughts in dry areas and flooding in wetter regions, which means less agricultural land and food products. This article documents how a shrinking Lake Chad is affecting food supply in the Sahel region of West Africa.
Worse, climate change may lead to conflict and violence which affect food production. Two major political disputes in Nigeria are tied to climate change and food security. In the Niger Delta, oil pollution has led to poor farming, and fishing conditions and farmers are finding it difficult to feed their communities. In the Middle Belt, desertification causes herders to move south to ensure that their animals are fed, but this comes at the cost of lost food crops to farmers. Hence, conflict ensues.
How we can resolve food insecurity?
A fundamental solution to the food security issue is increased investment in research and development. Investments in R&D is necessary because results would be used to provide information, tools, and infrastructure for farmers and food producers to increase efficiency without adversely affecting soil fertility, water, and biodiversity. For example, research dedicated to developing tomatoes that are resistant to tomato ebola or build high-yielding, drought-tolerant, and early maturing soybean lines or matching fertilizer blends to local conditions.
Investment and research could also be directed at technical know-how. That is, an increased effort to provide farmers with the knowledge to plant smarter and better for more yield. R&D makes sure that we are finding solutions to farmers problems especially issues that are specific to the Nigerian food need.
Halima and Hassan, parents of four, are beneficiaries of the IITA-led Africa Rising projects which trains West African farmers on agricultural productivity and food security. The couple had been rice farmers for over 10 years, but despite their best efforts to get optimal yields from their 2-acre paddy, the most they ever harvested was 1440kg of unmilled rice. After Halima got trained in advanced rice production techniques and was introduced to improved rice varieties, the couple was able to increase their yield to 2000kg. They can afford to feed their family better and are earning more money from selling the rest of their yield to the community.
As much as the government matters to food security, agricultural entrepreneurs might matter more. Competition may drive entrepreneurs to increase productivity and innovate while providing direct solutions to farmers and producers needs. For example, developing seeds, fertilisers, providing more efficient access to farming tools, developing a system to connect farmers to information on price, weather, and so on. The possibilities are endless.
One example of the positive effect of the private sector is AgResults. AgResults works with private-sector agricultural enterprises to develop and implement interventions that address aflatoxin contamination. This resulted in 96.6% of the maize grain-lots where aflasafeTM and a dramatic decrease in aflatoxin led to a 50% yield increase. The AgResults project has successfully demonstrated that private sector involvement in innovation delivery can significantly influence how farmers can be reached with available technologies.
More examples include Farmcrowdy, a startup connecting small-scale farmers to investors to promote food production and Chowberry connecting supermarkets to NGOs and low-income earners, allowing them to buy food that's about to expire at a discount.
Nigeria's food security requires a collective effort. With a lot more mouths to feed in the future, food security is of utmost concern. The real heroes will be Nigerian farmers and agro-entrepreneurs dedicated to innovating the agricultural sector and producing food for the rest of the country.
The goal is to make sure that millions of Nigerian children and adults have access to the fundamental human right of nutrition. While the economic rewards are tempting, solving the problem of food scarcity in Nigeria is indeed about saving lives; preventing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Nigerian citizens. Food security is a significant step in ensuring a life of dignity for every Nigerian.