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Combating Nigeria’s food crisis: Lessons from Africa and Asia

Combating Nigeria’s food crisis: Lessons from Africa and Asia

By Titus Obiezue

Nigeria is at a critical juncture. Soaring food inflation, driven by domestic shortfalls and external pressures, threatens the nation’s food security.

Nigeria’s headline inflation accelerated 1.50 percent to 33.20 percent in March, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. This figure is the highest in 28 years. About 50 percent of Nigeria’s monthly consumer price index (CPI) is food. Food inflation quickened to 40 percent in March from 37.92 percent in February.

Nigeria’s new President, Bola Tinubu, eliminated petrol subsidies in June 2023, leading to a significant price increase that has made it difficult for millions of individuals to meet their basic needs, especially food.

According to the October 2022 Cadre Harmonisé, a government-led and UN-supported food and nutrition analysis conducted bi-annually, UNICEF warned that approximately 25 million Nigerians faced the risk of hunger in the previous year unless immediate action was taken.

Key factors contributing to this alarming trend include ongoing conflict, climate change, inflation, and rising food prices. Persistent violence in the northeastern states of Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe (BAY), as well as armed banditry and kidnapping in states such as Katsina, Sokoto, Kaduna, Benue, and Niger, has disrupted access to food.

The sooner Nigeria’s leaders took on the problem of food security and sufficiency, the better for Africa’s most populous country. As a keen observer of Nigeria’s economy, I see solutions emerging from a two-pronged approach: boosting domestic production and mitigating external shocks.

Boosting domestic food production

Empowering smallholder farmers:

Across Africa, smallholder farmers are the backbone of agriculture. Initiatives like Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), which provides extension services, improved seeds, and access to finance for smallholders, have shown success. The Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) is a government agency in Ethiopia specifically designed to boost the growth and transformation of the agricultural sector. The ATA focuses exclusively on enhancing the livelihoods of small-scale farmers throughout the country, utilising strategies and efficient delivery mechanisms.

Indonesia also shows how to grow domestic food production beyond local consumption to exports with its palm oil industry. In 2021, Indonesia asserted its dominance as the world’s largest palm oil producer, showcasing an exceptional output of 46 million metric tonnes.

This industry has become an indispensable pillar of the Indonesian economy, accounting for 4.50 percent of its gross domestic product. Moreover, it has played a transformative role in alleviating poverty and emancipating millions of Indonesians from its clutches.

Investing in irrigation:

Drought is a constant threat in Nigeria. Following Morocco’s Green Plan, which emphasised water management infrastructure like dams and canals, Nigeria can improve irrigation efficiency and expand the area of cultivable land.

Following an exciting start, it seems that the federal government is dragging its feet when it comes to the importance of boosting food production and reducing prices. To facilitate year-round cultivation and harvests, the nation’s 264 dams should be used for farm irrigation.

Last October, the Federal Government declared that it had finalised plans to partially commercialise all the dams in the 12 national river basins. This initiative aims to ensure that the dams can effectively fulfil their designated purposes.

Industry groups have highlighted that enhancing the management of the nation’s 264 dams, currently underutilised for crop irrigation, presents an opportunity to boost food production while simultaneously reducing prices.

Prioritising climate-smart agriculture:

Climate change disrupts traditional growing seasons. Techniques like those used in Zambia, where farmers adopted drought-resistant maize varieties and conservation agriculture practices, can bolster Nigeria’s agricultural resilience.

Within the agricultural sector of Nigeria, farmers are increasingly employing improved seed varieties. These seeds possess notable attributes, including tolerance to drought, resistance to diseases, and shorter maturation periods. By using these enhanced seeds, farmers not only achieve higher crop yields but also mitigate the effects of climate variability. This adoption of improved seeds strengthens farmers’ ability to adapt to evolving environmental conditions. However, greater awareness is required to make this a widespread practice and future-proof Nigeria’s food security.

Mitigating external shocks

Import diversification:

Nigeria relies heavily on food imports, making it vulnerable to global price fluctuations.

In the fourth quarter of 2023, the value of agricultural goods imports reached ₦711.14 billion, reflecting a significant increase compared to the previous quarter (Q3 2023) and the corresponding quarter of 2022.

Specifically, there was a 10.48 percent growth when compared to ₦643.68 billion recorded in Q3 2023 and a remarkable 59.87 percent increase compared to ₦444.82 billion reported in the same quarter of 2022. These figures highlight a notable trend in the importation of agricultural goods in Nigeria.

Following Rwanda’s example of promoting trade with regional neighbours like Uganda and Tanzania, Nigeria can diversify its import sources, creating a buffer against external factors.

Strategic stockpiling:

Countries like Senegal have established emergency food reserves to mitigate price spikes during crises. Nigeria can make better use of its strategic grain reserves system, stockpiling staples like rice and maize to stabilise prices during disruptions.

In a bid to address the escalating food shortage in Nigeria, President Bola Tinubu issued a directive on February 8 for the swift release of 42,000 metric tonnes of food items, consisting of various types. These items were sourced from the strategic reserves and the Rice Millers Association of Nigeria as a short-term measure to alleviate the situation.

Presently, there are 53,000 metric tonnes of grain kept in reserve. With the release of 42,000 metric tonnes, 11,000 metric tonnes will remain as a contingency measure in case of unexpected events or unforeseen disasters. However, a bigger question is how to ensure food reserves reach poor Nigerians.

Supporting local food processing:

Post-harvest losses significantly reduce food availability in Nigeria. Investing in food processing facilities, like those established in Kenya with government support, can minimise waste and extend the shelf life of produce.

The problem of post-harvest losses is a serious threat to food security. In the case of fruits and vegetables, these losses can reach 50–60 percent if not managed properly. Surprisingly, this issue has not received the same level of attention as production, despite its significant impact.

Recommendation

Based on the analysis of Nigeria’s food crisis and the successful policies implemented in other countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, I recommend the following policy for Nigeria to guarantee food security and food exports: establishing a National Food Security and Export Promotion Agency.

The agency will be tasked with overseeing initiatives aimed at boosting domestic food production and mitigating external shocks to ensure long-term food security and promote food exports. Establishing the National Food Security and Export Promotion Agency will require legislative approval and adequate funding from the government.

This agency should collaborate with relevant stakeholders, including government agencies, agricultural organisations, and private sector entities, to implement and monitor food security policies effectively.

Titus Obiezue is vice president of the data, analytics, reporting, and technology team of risk management at Citigroup, New York, USA, and a former economist at the Central Bank of Nigeria. The views expressed are Obiezue’s, not those of Citigroup.