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Taking agric to greater heights in the new decade

Even as the general consensus is that some meaningful achievements have been recorded in the nation’s agriculture sector over the past two decades a lot still needs to be done. That is, to make more meaningful impact at the grass root level, increase and sustain the productive capacity of related small and medium scale enterprises, SMEs, reduce the huge food import bills and generally boost food security.

Under the Chief Olusegun Obasanjo-led administration he was noted as “The Crusader for Nigeria’s Green Revolution” according to Adamu Bello. He said Obasanjo’s administration introduced a new agricultural policy that was developed to anchor all the efforts in the agricultural sector. That clearly defined the roles of the various tiers of governments, farmers associations, research institutes and extension centres. It also included the role of support agencies by which the policy was able to give clear roles to all stakeholders.Notably, the cassava revolution began with the composite wheat-wheat flour ratio of 90-to-10 per cent.

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Fast forward to the former President Goodluck Jonathan administration, with the Transformation Agenda. With the purposeful and forward-looking Minister of Agriculture, Dr.Akinwunmi Adesina there came in the focus on developing the Value-Chain in the sector. The policies were people-driven as rural farmers were encouraged to form associations that were registered and got connected to the government. The issue of corruption in the fertilizer sub-sector was frontally tackled as the middle men were done away with.

As at July 2013 the then government decided to do something about the whopping sum of N1.3 trillion spent on the top-four food imports every year. This huge import bill was growing at a rate of 11 per cent per year and furling inflation. In Adesina’s words: “We are importing products that we either produce in abundance such as N356 bn worth of rice,N217bn worth of sugar and N97 bn worth of fish.

“We are importing products that we can easily find local alternatives for that will reduce our import bill such as N635 bn being spent on wheat importation.” The administration worked towards achieving self-sufficiency in rice production by 2015. It also aimed to earn $136 million foreign exchange annually from exporting cassava chips as well as resuscitate cotton production.

And good enough, before the administration left power substantial progress was made in focusing on the areas of core-competence of each geo-political zone. Rejuvenating cocoa in the south-west, palm oil in the south-east, cotton, groundnut, onions in the northern axis and rice across the country began to yield fruits.

With the coming of the President Muhammdu Buhari-led administration, the Anchor Borrowers Programme driven by the CBN has recorded some gains. So has the recent closure of the border with Republic of Benin made positive impact on rice revolution in the country. The issue of huge import bill is therefore, being reduced.

This is in line with the view of the Chief Executive Officer, Nigerian-American Agricultural Empowerment Programme Limited, Chief Temitope Ajayi who predicted in 2013 that the huge food import bill is reversible. In a similar vein, Dr. Geraldine Ikenna the Director of Nigerian Agricultural Products Export Promotion Initiative hold a similar view.

In that wise, we take a panoramic view of the opinions of experts on the best way forward. For instance, Ikenna is of the opinion that there should be greater involvement of the private sector. Similarly, massive commercial and merchandised agricultural engagements will provide jobs for thousands of unemployed Nigerians and accelerate industrialization, especially with the development of SMEs.

She noted, and rightly too, that out of the 84 million hectares of arable land only about 40 per cent was being cultivated, while less than 10 per cent was being optimized.

On his part, Richard Hargrave, the Managing Director of Dizengof West Africa Limited is of the opinion that government should have no business with agriculture. Said he:“Instead, it should focus on infrastructure essential for Nigeria to grow more of its own food.” Government needs to be focused on assisting in building infrastructure to help the private sector to build a successful agricultural sector.”

He fears that though government may have good intentions towards boosting food production the challenge lies with those he called “speculators and all kinds of dubious characters.”To bolster this claim he stated that: “There is no business that government places its hand on that works; the same will happen in agriculture, the same will happen in power. The government knows this and they understand it”. He cited the fact while back in 1997 NITEL had 50,000 lines but the figure has since increased to between 110 million and 120 million lines accessible to Nigerians as at seven years ago.

In terms of funding, he feels that the non-agric sector could go with 20 to 25 per cent interest rate but such cannot be sustained in the agric sector. Like the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, MAN Hargrave believes that more should be done towards increasing the skills acquisition of local farmers. That would enhance the value chain from land preparation through processing to preservation.

One area that the government could still be useful is funding. According to Mr.Samuel Afolayan, the Executive Director, Agricultural and Rural Management Training Institute, ARMTI doing so would boost industrialization and food security. He urged the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN to make more money available to support capacity building of entrepreneurs, especially in agric products that could encourage more people to venture into farming. He has also appealed to the National Assembly to make laws that would make the environment more conducive for agric business people including farmers and investors.

The other issues that should be tackled frontally include the quality of machinery involved in food production, processing and preservation. It has been observed that most of the tractors imported from China, India, and Pakistan do not work here in Nigeria because they were never made for our peculiar environment. That explains why several get spoilt easily without being useful to the small scale farmers.” Richard Hargrave insisted.

Beyond all these, more funding should go to research institutes as it obtains in the UK, US, China ,India and Brazil. They should collaborate with the private sector to increase the capacity of women and those willing to capitalize on research findings for mass production.

Local machine fabricators and millers need more encouragement from the government by the provision of stable electric power. It is unacceptable that Nigeria leads the world in cassava tuber production but is not on the world map of cassava starch production.

We need a holistic approach to farming in such a way that right from our homes through schools, and communities agriculture could take its pride of place. We have had Operation feed the Nation, Green Revolution, Accelerated Food Production programmes, DFRRI and River Basin Authorities yet we are net importer of finished agric products.

Public Private Partnerships,PPP are needed in the sector to make for the gradual withdrawal of government from agric business to be given back to the people who should be encouraged with the right infrastructure, single digit soft loans of long term and enabling environment and laws to galvanise the much anticipated agric revolution.

 

Ayo Oyoze BAJE

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