• Wednesday, April 24, 2024
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Nigeria has sufficient rice, says AFAN President

Nigeria has sufficient rice, says AFAN President

For Nigeria to attain the much-desired food sufficiency, its agricultural sector needs focus, education, mechanisation, storage, and ofcourse security, according to Kabiru Ibrahim, National President, All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN). In this exclusive interview with BusinessDay, he also insists that despite soaring prices, Nigeria has sufficient rice to feed its populace. Ibrahim spoke to Onyinye Nwachukwu and Cynthia Egboboh, BusinessDay’s Abuja Bureau Chief and Corresponding respectively. EXCERPTS…

You are leading the association of Nigerian farmers, first of all, talk us through the agricultural sector, in terms of policies, support, challenges and ofcourse output?

Let me start by saying that the good thing is that anybody can be a farmer; there is no law in the public service or country today that says you cannot partake in agriculture. But of course, you cannot be in public service and do other businesses. But you can do farming, so it doesn’t take anything. We know that 70 percent of our population are farmers. If you are rearing chickens in your backyard and planting vegetables, that is farming, but at a subsistence level. However, there are commercial farmers who do it as a business; they will have workers, create jobs, and some will even add value to what they produce. That is advanced agriculture, which is the dream of every country that aspires to food security. They encourage the commercialization of agricultural activities; they do not sell all what they produce in raw form, but even when they do, they sell it to aggregators, who then take it to where value will be added.

The value chain is such that everybody can benefit, and that is why small countries like the Netherlands, with a population of about 17 million and 55,000 farmers, earn income from agriculture only second to the United States of America. For Nigeria, because we have very large irrigable and cultivable land and a very large population, there is no reason why we should not have food security, but we need to harness our potential. Unfortunately, there are some people who eat fat on the possibilities in agriculture. They probably do not own farms, they have political influence, they have relations in positions of respect, and they dress well, go to offices, claim to be farmers, and take what should rightly go to farmers. I needed to bring this out because there are some people who call themselves farmers and make a lot of noise, but they really do not own a farm or know anything about agriculture or farming.

Now, there are so many challenges; the biggest one is insecurity. You and I know that farming is essentially a rural vocation, though there is some bit of urban agriculture. But today, in the villages, hinterland people are unable to farm because of insecurity, so we have a serious deficit of what we need to become food-sufficient in Nigeria. Secondly, in order to scale productivity, you need to mechanise; you need to replace human power with machine power, and mechanisation is still very low in the country. The penetration of tractors in Nigeria is still very small, even compared to some other countries like Kenya.

Thirdly, the affordability of some inputs by farmers is also a big problem. As we speak, the price of fertilisers in any blend is not less than 20,000 naira, which is not affordable by farmers. We also need a lot of education and technology; we need to mitigate post-harvest losses. We need to make sure that we have a good transport system from place of production to place of need, such that you can seamlessly go and get produce at a very reasonable price across the country. Most times, it’s the middlemen that inflate the prices of agricultural produce; they go to buy from markets, transport whatever they have bought, put their margins aside, and bring it to the Abuja or Lagos market or the urban markets, where the prices are high. Unfortunately, most people now blame farmers for the high costs, but they are not because they sell at the farm gate. The high costs should not be traced to them, and they are really not the ones causing the rising costs and inflation. Again, I needed to make this point.

That said, inflation is a very important factor now that we must address as a nation. It is affecting the purchasing power of the naira because you cannot even rationalise it. Today, the dollar sells for about N1500, which is crazy. In the neighbouring countries that we had looked at as very poor, their currencies are even getting much stronger than the naira. And because Africa is one market, because we signed up to the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), those countries come to Nigeria to buy our produce because it is ridiculously cheap to them. Therefore, the pressure on our agricultural produce is not only from within; it’s also from without. We have an accumulation of all these things that make life unbearable for the common man. Mind you, salaries are fixed, but the prices of food and other items are skyrocketing. How can you then feed yourself? Everybody is complaining, and something needs to be done real quick. Agriculture needs focus, it needs education, it needs mechanisation, storage, and all that. To be able to upscale productivity and ensure that there will be abundant food in society, we can get some respite from the challenges that we have today. Nigeria’s agriculture needs more investment than we have now from both the private and public sectors.

How much has the presidential fertiliser initiative rolled out by former President Buhari’s administration helped in boosting farmers’ productivity?

If you say there is a PFI (Presidential Fertiliser Initiative) now, I think you should go back and find out. PFI became abrogated even before Buhari left office because the people driving it—the NSIA (Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority)—told the Nigerian government that they could no longer subsidised fertiliser to the extent that we expected from 2021. But before that, we were buying the fertiliser sold by the NSIA or through the PFI at N5,500. Everywhere, it was selling like Coca-Cola; in fact, in my village, it comes to me at N5,500; in Abuja, it was also N5,500. That regime was so good that when COVID came, the chairman of the PFI announced that he was giving further subsidies. So fertiliser sold even cheaper during the height of that pandemic, at N5,000. But soon after, the NSIA withdrew the subsidy. Fertiliser became N11,300, and the farmers could not afford it. Later, it became over N20,000, and the farmers could simply not afford it. As the naira lost out, fertilisers, especially the ones produced under the PFI, which was 20:10:10, rose to over N20, 000, and farmers could simply not afford them. NSIA pulled out when it was no longer possible to shoulder the responsibility of subsidy; this was in 2021.

However, today, Nigeria has received a donation of about 33,000 metric tonnes of potash, which is a component for fertiliser, from a company in Russia. When it comes, it would be used to cushion some of the price increases that we have seen, but that is not even enough. We had a meeting with the vice president, and we formed a committee. We started work on it in the office of the Federal Minister for Agriculture and Food Security before the whole thing was transferred to the office of the Chief of Staff. When we did the calculations and the NSA (National Security Adviser) did his own calculations, everybody came to the conclusion that we might be able to get a rebate of about N5,000 on the price. Well, if you take a rock bottom price of N22, 000 and you remove N5, 000, it’s N17, 000. Even at this price, farmers find it very costly. Moreover, that is even a one-off intervention. What we think should be done is that the government should give a sustainable subsidy for at least two years for inputs like fertilisers; farmers will get it, and there’ll be more abundant food. And subsequent to that, the farmers will now spend whatever money they have to get all the other inputs that they need because then they will have the economic support to be able to do that.

For the commercial farmers, who make money from agriculture, is there no way they can also take some of these costs like other businesses?

We know that the government in itself does not have a farm, but everywhere in the world, they help in agriculture. That’s why we are agitating for this. We know that the farmers will produce, sell, and take the money, but we were agitating for this because food cuts across all sectors, and the government needs to provide food easily to people so that the restlessness that we see that causes insecurity can be curbed. This is the position: the government should invest a little more than it has been doing, and efforts should be made to amplify mechanisation, the use of science, technology, and innovation. Education is very, very crucial to productivity in agriculture. Governments or nations that have food security have used education and knowledge to bolster their agric business.

With the withdrawal of PFI, are there conversations to possibly reinstate fertiliser subsidies?

Like I mentioned, we are now in a committee that is looking at these things, but I repeat, the government cannot do without looking at what happens in agriculture; food security is sine qua non to physical security, and that is why the government is hell bent on making sure that there is food security. Farmers are not looking for free fertilisers; we are looking for readily available and affordable fertilisers and other inputs to be able to maximise our productivity. That conversation is clear. A lot of things are happening, even embracing biotechnology and genetically modified (GM) crops to be able to scale our productivity because of our growing population. Thirty years from today, Nigeria will have 400 million people. Today, 270 million people are grappling with food security. What will happen in 30 years? A lot of work has to be done. People have to wake up, and it’s everybody’s problem. The government has to provide the enabling environment to enable farmers to produce because what they are doing is for God and the country and should be encouraged.

How are farmers embracing biotech to scale output?

They really are. We have the cowpea that was released, and it is already in commercial production. We just have a deficit of about 500,000 metric tonnes nationally. Since the time that it was released and farmers have been cultivating it, that deficit has narrowed. Today we are talking about Tela maize, GM maize, and some other varieties that are out now, and they are going to be all over the place; farmers will have them. The effect it will have is that where you used to produce 2 tonnes per hectare, using those seed types, you’ll be able to produce about 10 tonnes, therefore scaling up. For a farmer who can barely survive using the same parcel of land, with these seeds, he will get four or even five times the output. So the way out of poverty for the farmers, who I have said constitute about 70 percent of the population, is by embracing biotechnology, which leads to genetic engineering. This is where we are. We embrace biotechnology as a means to get out of poverty and get into prosperity, and for Nigeria to become food-sufficient and have sustainable food security, it is important that, among other things, we also embrace the use of GM crops, education, mechanisation, technology, good storage, good transport, and good power supply. It’s a gamut of things that we need to make Nigeria’s food sufficient sustainably.

How are farmers coping with the heightened insecurity in the country?

Insecurity is a very important threat to productivity. In fact, it is almost number one because even where we don’t have incidents of kidnappings and banditry, the people fear going into the farm. As you know, agricultural production is a rural thing, and if you go into the rural areas, it’s very difficult to even look out for help, so people tend not to go to the farm out of fear. This is a very, very serious threat factor to productivity, and once productivity is low, availability becomes low, and affordability is also challenged, especially because of the foreign exchange problem. This threat from insecurity is larger than everyone. The best thing that Nigeria will do is to stem it and make sure that our people are able to really go to the farms to produce because we have committed to producing what we eat and eating what we produce.

Since COVID-19, every country is really looking inward. There is no way any country that is not food-sufficient will allow the haphazard export of what it produces. Besides insecurity here in Africa, in Nigeria, there is also the climate change problem. Every country committed to mitigating climate change at COP 28, which just took place in Dubai. Nigeria is also committed to that, and every nation has to do its own best to make sure that there is a reduction in the emission of methane and carbon generally. We have to come to terms with the realities of climate change and not be in denial. I believe there are many things that we have to deal with in Nigeria. We are unfortunately saddled with the issue of insecurity, and we must be able to stem it.

Do you think the government is doing enough to tackle insecurity?

When you look at the ratio of the personnel saddled with the provision of security to our population, the government is doing a great job. Look at the vast area that they have to traverse; look at the areas that are affected by insecurity. You will know that with what the government has, it’s doing its best, but like Oliver Twist, we ask for more. The government should do more and be more equipped. Also, you, I, and everybody else in Nigeria should contribute to stemming insecurity because it’s everybody’s problem. That is to say, if you see something, you say something, no matter how closely related you are to the person. If you feel uncomfortable with the people around you, please report that. Be your brother’s keeper; that is the only way we can tackle this insecurity problem. In other countries, even before a crime happens, it is reported to the appropriate authorities. Besides, there are security cameras that capture everything happening in real time. We must do that. We have to develop; we have to wake up; all of us have to be security conscious in our homes, on our farms, and in our places of worship; everybody has to contribute.

Talking about climate change, floods have also contributed to food shortages, what role is the farmers’ association playing to tackle the situation, working with the government?

As farmers, we get regular predictions from the Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NiMet). We get information and make wake-up calls to avoid flood-prone areas as we do our farming activities. On our part, we tell our members not to clog drains, to discard litter properly, and not to fell trees in a manner that will be detrimental to the land itself. We also caution people about the effects of climate change, especially because of the flooding that we’ve seen since 2022. We had been under the impression that flooding takes place in Nigeria at 10-year intervals, but we had floods in 2022, in 2023, and, God forbid, in 2024. This flooding is not only in Nigeria, Canada, and all those places; even some countries here in Africa have had landslides caused by drainage problems and things like that. It is true that flooding is a threat factor, but it is accentuated by the denial of climate change. The sooner we wake up from that denial, the better for the whole world. This is why I say Cop28 is committed to the mitigation of carbon emissions, which really causes this imbalance in what we are used to.

In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for instance, there was a time they had flooding; unfortunately, they had no drainage. The history of that area showed then that for some years, there would be no rain at all, but suddenly they had torrential rains, and of course water had to find its way, and they had flooding. In Nigeria, there are some areas where it has always rained in a given month, but because of climate change, we had just light showers. We also had a drought, which is a threat to productivity as well. So flooding is real; it can be mitigated by the conscious efforts that I mentioned. We commit to at least attaining first the 17 SDGs and then, going forward, working towards green agriculture, embracing climate, smart agricultural productivity, and then avoiding the effects of flooding, which will always happen. We must always remember that our populations, our habits, our drainage systems, and our developments in cities all contribute to flooding.

Talk to us about the consistent rise in the price of rice despite claims of increased output?

There are many reasons we have this escalation of prices. I know that your thesis is that there is insufficient rice, but I will disagree with you in a lot of places. If a bag of 50 kg of rice is more than N60, 000 today, it was N48, 000 maybe five months ago, and it is likely to go higher because the naira is losing value every day. You are talking about rice; how much does a good family loaf cost? There are so many reasons for these rising prices. For instance, if a person generates his own power and the price of gasoline is going up and the value of the naira is going down, what should the person do? We need to sit down and find ways to shore up the value of our currency. And I think that the hydra-headed thing really causing this turbulence is corruption, which will not survive if there are no players, and the players are you and I. If we dislike anybody who flaunts things that they derive from corruption and shame them openly rather than celebrate them, they will not do it.

When I was the president of the poultry association of Nigeria, I used to lead Nigeria’s poultry delegation to downtown Atlanta. They have a very big congress centre; we would see the mayor of Atlanta walking alone through that long walkway, carrying his own briefcase into the place. Mind you, the mayor of Atlanta is bigger than a state governor here. But here, when a governor goes on any public outing, look at the number of people accompanying him, just because he’s using public money to sustain them. Can he do so with his salary? And most times we admire, clap, and encourage them. That’s why I said the bane of our decay is actually corruption. You look at a corrupt person, and you say that this man is comfortable; you aspire to be like him, even when you know that he is stealing that money. You should simply dislike that. You should create a distance, and that person will be discouraged. This is what Nigeria should do to become better. I’m not puritanical or anything, but this is reality, not a fairy tale.

Coming back to the prices of food items and rice specifically, there was a very strong effort by the Buhari administration to make Nigerian food sufficient for rice. In 2015, I was one of the people that escorted Mr. President to Kebbi to flag off the wheat and rice programmes. The CBN developed the Anchor Borrower Programme from that policy. The Anchor Borrower programme was supposed to be for both wheat and rice, but somewhere along the line, the issue of wheat was jettisoned. The CBN put in a lot of money on rice production, and we did have a lot of rice. Again, to be able to get food security, we must look at the regional requirements of staple foods, meet those requirements, amplify the production of those things that are staple in every region in the six geopolitical zones, and be sufficient in those. This is because food security means eating what you want at the time that you want; it’s nutritious enough, and it’s also affordable to you. And we cannot say rice is a staple in Nigeria; we have made it a staple, and we need to change that.

The price of rice is unfortunately high for several reasons: the inputs that you need, like fertilisers, herbicides, insecticides, labour, transportation, and others, all contribute to the price. And then, of course, the dwindling fortune of the naira. These are the reasons; I’m not surprised, because when you go to buy a bag of 100 kg of cowpea now in my village, it’s N87, 000, and maize is N57, 000. All these things are high because of the purchasing power; it’s not as if the thing is not available. There is rice everywhere; go to any shop, and you will see rice, but it’s costly. Today in Nigeria, there is food, but it is expensive, and the salaries or wages have not changed; therefore, people will definitely complain. The devaluation of our currency is unimaginable; unfortunately, the price will continue to rise unless something is done to the naira.

I will give you a technical explanation. The CBN withdrew the ban on giving foreign exchange to people who wanted to import some items, including rice. From what I know, the cheapest rice you can get into Lagos Port, Nigeria, is from India. But India has now put a ban on the quantity of rice you can even import from there. The landing cost of a 50-kg bag of rice is translated to be like N58, 000; it can easily compete with what we produce, so it’s not even economical to import. The CBN has also been talking about not having the foreign exchange to give anybody. Would we have money now to give people who want to import things that we think we have sufficient knowledge of? To say that we have sufficiency in rice is based on realities, not fairytales. Again, the institutions saddled with monitoring, admission, and distribution of the things that are produced here and the things that are produced elsewhere have to work properly.

How are farmers embracing CBN lifting of the FX restriction for importation of some 43 items?

What we should encourage is to get our people internally to produce those things and create an enabling environment. Look at toothpicks, for example. Is it that we don’t have the raw materials, the machinery, the factories, or whatever to make good toothpicks? What we should worry about is creating opportunities for this kind of thing to be produced here. After they brought all these things in, how has it helped Nigeria? My view is that it will not even work because, unless you are laundering money, you will not be able to bring in those things; you will not get the foreign exchange for them. It’s all because of corruption. Since many people cannot bring in the money itself, they will bring these goods here, and because they have influence, they also make the dollar have more value. So by the time somebody brings something worth $1 million and he gets the $1 million equivalent of the naira, he has a lot of money and can buy off all the properties around his neighbourhood. There is minimal corruption in China, and that is why, whether you like it or not, it is a fast world. China and the Russians were very poor; now they want to even recolonize Africa. But here we condone corruption, and we think that is a status symbol to be in a position where you can perpetrate corruption, and there is no problem.

We read in the recent past that about 50 percent of poultry farmers have shut down?

When you say 50 percent, it’s a guess. They had a summit recently, which I chaired. We looked at the needs of the sector together with the minister of agriculture. I was talking to him about the application for maize, and he said that they had allocated 5000 tonnes, but that’s like a drop in the ocean. The poultry association, or the poultry farmers in this country, need millions of tonnes of maize. I have now broken it down. I said over 200 laying birds would consume one bag. So if a person has 50,000 of such laying birds, how many bags would that person require daily? You can’t tell the chicken not to eat today. If it doesn’t eat, it doesn’t lay eggs; if it is a broiler, it will not gain weight. So this is cyclic; we must differentiate between feed-grade corn and that for human consumption. But when we are eating from the same pot, it’s not possible to bridge that gap or bring down that deficit. And there are the protein components: the soybean meal, the groundnut cake, even the cottonseed cake. We put them all together and make feed for the large ruminants, for the chickens, and so on.