• Friday, May 24, 2024
businessday logo


Feed yourself


IF I had a wish list,” says Luka Abgu, a farmer from Taraba state, in eastern Nigeria, “I would like a tractor.” “Farming is slow back-breaking work and I often have to employ labourers,” says Mr Abgu, who thinks he is about 60 years old. Though agriculture is still Nigeria’s largest employer, most of it is for mere subsistence. Farmers use age-old rudimentary methods and basic tools. Things are changing in some parts of Taraba—but too slowly. Akinwumi Adesina, the country’s latest and—in recent times—most dynamic farms minister, is determined to speed things up.

Nigeria’s governments all talk grandly about the potential of large-scale agribusiness but the country still awaits its green revolution. Some 60% of Nigeria’s 167m people are farmers, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. The Central Bank says farming accounts for 41% of GDP, though this is likely to drop when the overall figure is “rebased” later this year.

Nigeria should be able to feed itself but patently fails to do so. It spends about $11 billion a year importing food and is the world’s largest buyer of rice. President Goodluck Jonathan says he wants to raise food production by 20m tonnes within four years and end the need to import rice by 2015. But it is hard to see Nigeria feeding itself soon, given its swelling population. The UN says it could exceed 400m by 2050, whereas farm output is rising by 5% a year.

Before the discovery of oil in the 1970s, Nigeria was the world’s biggest exporter of peanuts and palm oil. But since then farming has been neglected and yields have stagnated. Less than half of Nigeria’s arable land is now used; only 10% of farmland is “optimally” used, says Mr Adesina. For instance, shea nuts, an ingredient in beauty products and moisturisers, rot on the ground, though some say they could be worth around $2 billion a year.

Promoting cassava as a wheat substitute could reduce wheat imports, which add a lot to the country’s food bill. SABMiller, a multinational London-based beverage company with big interests in Africa, wants to expand its sales of the cassava-based beer it has pioneered in Mozambique—and notes that Nigeria produces more cassava than any other country in the world. Nearly 90% of the crop is consumed by the families of the smallholders who grow it. Yet yields are still very low and could easily be doubled.

Aid agencies have helped farmers in Taraba grow better varieties of cassava, which can then be mechanically processed. Farmers receive cash in hand that can be invested back into their farms. But such schemes have been tried before. “[Former President Olusegun] Obasanjo got us all to grow cassava,” says Yusuf Tsunbuji, a Taraba farmer, “and we ended up using it as firewood.”

Another snag is that the farming workforce is ageing, though 70% of Nigerians are younger than 30. “I have had my own farmland for three years,” says Mikha Saleh, another Taraba man, explaining that his father gave him a piece a land to own and manage when he was 12. “I work on the farm for three hours or so every day as well as going to school,” he says with a grin. “I enjoy the independence.”

But the government has failed to excite young people with the prospect of farming as a career. Most prefer to head for the burgeoning cities in the hope of getting rich quick. “Farming has become a vocation for people with nothing else to do,” says an aid worker. Though a new lending scheme was initiated in 2011, banks are still loth to lend to farmers, since returns take too long. Training opportunities are still few. But Mr Adesina is also keen to provide farmers with better advice. Some 4.2m of them, he says, have recently been registered on a national database. The number should rise, he hopes, to 10m by the end of the year.

Too far from farm to fork

The biggest impediment may be lousy infrastructure: crumbling roads and patchy supplies of electricity and water. That, says Mr Adesina, is why 45% of Nigeria’s tomatoes are ruined every day.

Women, who make up a good half of the farming workforce, are often forced into farming by marriage. “When it comes to discussing the cost of planting, the men beat the prices down,” says Victoria Lucas, a widow of 40 in Taraba, who grows cassava, yams and maize with her six children. “They know I can’t do it alone.”

Mr Adesina is trying to help farmers by, among other things, extricating government from the business of procuring and distributing fertiliser. Nigerians proportionally use a tenth as much fertiliser as their Indian counterparts. Subsidies for it have existed for more than three decades but red tape and corruption hamper distribution and limit production. “We were subsidising corruption,” says Mr Adesina. “We were not subsidising farmers.”

So he has introduced a system whereby dealers accept vouchers as payment for fertiliser. And foreigners are being encouraged to invest in local fertiliser companies in the hope that they may drive down prices and thus, in the end, increase yields. An Indian-owned company, Indorama, says it plans to set up a $1.2 billion fertiliser plant in Nigeria.